Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Battle for the beach

Tension between cottagers, developers rising at Grand Beach Provincial Park

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RICHARD KELLER'S gamble on Grand Beach included two months of hauling huge chunks of half-a-kilometre's worth of blue fibreglass waterslides from Brandon in a trailer.

Keller officially opened Thunder Mountain Waterslides this summer, hoping business would improve if he was a short drive from the province's most popular beach. Grand Beach attracted 130,000 people last year and Manitobans haven't forgotten it once made Playboy's Top 10 beaches.

The tower of winding waterslides is just one sign of hope for business owners in the area who believe Grand Beach and the nearby sleepy town of Grand Marais could drastically change over the next five to 10 years.

They want the area to become a midwest tourism destination with all the trappings: a high-end hotel, white-tablecloth restaurants, a four-lane highway, water sport rentals and maybe even condos and a marina.

However, Grand Beach is located within Grand Beach Provincial Park, and development within the park is regulated by the Manitoba government.

The idea of more development is controversial among cottage owners and beach-goers, who enjoy the quiet of the region and the natural beauty of the provincial park's lagoon, sand dunes and kilometres of barely developed beach.

Tension between the competing visions for the area has come to a boil since the province decided on an early closure each night for the restaurant and bar at the Surf Club, the only motel inside the provincial park. Parks staff say night-time rowdiness on the beach is behind the decision, but development boosters argue it's just another move to stifle tourism.

More than 200 people rallied in front of the Surf Club last week after a call from the business community to "Save Grand Beach."

The head of the local cottage association, who local people believe supported the 11 p.m. closing time, recently had eggs thrown at his cottage.

Leading the call for more development in the area is the Grand Beach Development Corp. Ken Avery, one of the board members, recalls years of fighting for permits to turn his secluded Grand Marais cottage into a now-thriving bed and breakfast.

His guests come from all over the world to the two-storey home with an above-ground pool nestled among oaks.

"Every last one of them asks us: 'What's wrong with the Manitoba government? This is a jewel, but there's no services,' " said Avery.

"We don't want it to be Coney Island, but we want it to be a park that serves the needs of Manitoba. This isn't a nature park; this is a people's park."

Avery points to Grand Beach's heyday from the 1920s to the 1940s as the reason the park can handle more than just the Surf Club and a few stands along the boardwalk. In those days, the strip was privately owned and the beach's boardwalk was lined with concession stands, a dance pavilion and a carousel.

A fire burned down the dance hall in 1950 and the popularity of the car over the train made visiting Grand Beach more often a day trip for most Winnipeggers.

Avery has lobbied politicians for development within the park's borders and in the neighbouring community. Most business owners would settle for a large hotel and maybe a few more family-friendly activities like the waterslides in Grand Marais. Avery has the biggest visions for the area and probably the most controversial proposal for fast-tracking changes.

"We would gladly see the park put up and sold. They have done absolutely nothing except hinder development in the area," he said.

Avery's ideas, like a marina in the park, may seem far-off, but George Harbottle, reeve of the RM of Alexander, has heard that a group of international investors are interested in putting up condos outside the park.

And a U.S. gaming company has signed on to develop a mega casino project near Grand Beach, on the Brokenhead First Nation on Highway 59. The project hasn't yet got the go-ahead from Manitoba's gaming commission.

Development boosters have a list of what they see as the obstacles to change in the area: tight rules around development in the park, restrictive zoning bylaws outside the park, not enough money spent by the province on promoting the region outside Manitoba.

Manitoba Conservation, which runs Grand Beach Provincial Park, says it considers proposals from the business community, but it also has to take into consideration the wishes of campers, cottagers and day-visitors.

"Our objective is to provide parks, first and foremost, as natural areas for the recreational enjoyment of all Manitobans," said Dave Wotton, assistant deputy minister.

"Recreational users vary in their wants, but traditionally they want a camping experience, they want those beaches to be maintained in a pristine way that sustains the quality of the surroundings of that lake."

Outside the park, municipal governments have to do a similar balancing act when it comes to development proposals, Wotton said.

In the rabbit warren of simple summer cottages and chip shops hidden from the road heading into Grand Beach park, there are mixed feelings about change.

Cottagers were among the most vocal opponents to a new $5.5-million campground and entertainment complex south of Grand Beach that held its first concert this summer, saying it would bring too much traffic and noise.

Karen Franklin has spent a lifetime of summers in a little white home that has her maiden name on a sign next to the front door. Helping her husband Wes scrape old paint off the front porch, Franklin listed the failed businesses in the area over the last decade.

"This area has declined since I was a kid," she said.

A few years ago, she would have been against development, but now she would like to see a few more businesses.

"For ourselves, there's nine small children in this area and I wouldn't want people speeding up and down the roads. At the same time, I'm here all season and it would be nice to have a shop or someplace to go on a rainy day."

Other cottagers, such as Maureen Morrish, argue that there are already enough services in Grand Marais and enough tourists in the region. Grand Beach is too crowded and non-Manitoban cottage owners aren't around for enough of the summer to look after their properties, she said.

A few kilometres away inside the park's gate, Winnipegger Pat Johnston sat in a lawn chair, surveyed the white, sandy beach and declared that Grand Beach doesn't need any improvements.

"I would love to see this place stay the same," she said.

"I'm 47 and we came here every summer as kids. It's comforting to know the same old concession stand is here. I don't like this American idea of having everything you can get in the city out here."

The E. coli scare in the beach's water earlier this summer is a sign that there's already enough development pressure on the park, she added.

With his waterslides set to close for the season next week, Keller remains optimistic his business will boom once more people hear about Thunder Mountain.

His best day this season -- 450 people -- is what he wants his slowest day to be in coming years.

Keller said developers are interested in opening a mini-golf course in the clearing next door to his waterslide, but they are first waiting to see how his business does.

"We would like to bring Grand Beach back to what it was in the past -- a place for family and friends to come and enjoy one of the nicest beaches in the world," said Keller.

"I think it's just starting to happen."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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