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You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
(The Gambler, 1978, performed by Kenny Rogers, written by Don Schlitz)

Late last week I made the decision to fold my appeal of Parry Sound Council’s approval of the Oastler Park Rezoning and Official Plan Amendment and advised the Town and the lawyers for the Oastler Park Mall of this decision on June 29th.

I initiated my appeal in January of this year for three reasons that are worth listing:

  1. I believed, and still believe, that the rezoning will significantly change the Parry Sound downtown (Downtown). It may not hurt the Town overall in terms of tax revenue, but things will change, and the changes may be painful for some.
  2. I felt that the parties most likely to be impacted by the rezoning had not yet organized themselves and needed additional time to properly appeal the rezoning and Official Plan amendment decision.
  3. The work submitted by the applicant in support of the rezoning contained significant errors of fact that put into question the impartiality and conclusions of the applicant’s experts.

My original January appeal of the Oastler Park rezoning was appealed two months later (an appeal of an appeal) by the Town and the rezoning applicant wishing to have the Royal Bank relocate to the Oastler Park Plaza in the location previously leased by the Easy Home people. Last Friday I received a communication from the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) that my original appeal could go forward. This followed a communication earlier in the week from the Province of Ontario advising interested parties that the decision had been made to uphold the Town’s Official Plan Amendment (OPA) permitting a change in the Official Plan to allow for the rezoning of the Oastler Park Mall property to permit the Royal Bank to relocate there from the Parry Sound Mall. Existing Parry Sound Official Plan had required Banks, Booze outlets (LCBO, Beer Store) and Bars (licensed establishments), commonly referred to as the 3-B restriction (3-B) to be located in the Parry Sound Downtown.

If you find this issue confusing, be comforted by my suggestion that it is confusing. Unless you have been following the issue for most of the year you probably have read as much as you need to. For those of you more familiar with the situation, you may wish to read on and understand why the original appeal was an important part of process and my sense of what may be ahead for the Town of Parry Sound.

Background:

In January of the 2017 I filed an appeal with the OMB concerning the Town of Parry Sound’s (TOPS or Town) decision to permit a rezoning of the Oastler Park Plaza to allow the Royal Bank to move into an existing vacant building. In January I also filed a document with the Province outlining my concerns with the Official Plan Amendment (OPA) approved by the Town to permit the rezoning. The arguments in both filings are similar and I have linked a copy of my filing to the Province regarding the OPA rezoning for those who are interested in my specific concerns.

My appeal of the rezoning was appealed to the OMB by the Oastler Park Plaza folks. They wanted my appeal thrown out. A hearing, convened by the OMB, was held in Parry Sound in April with the lawyer for the Oastler Park Plaza, and me, presenting our arguments why my appeal of the rezoning should, or shouldn’t be heard, by the OMB. The appeal itself was interesting and a worthwhile exercise. On the Oastler Park side was their lawyer and his assistant, up from Hamilton, along with the Oastler Park Plaza’s planning consultant. On my side, it was me. The lawyers for the Oastler Park Plaza folks presented about 400 pages of documentation including precedents for why my appeal should be rejected. In all, the hearing took about 4 hours. As mentioned earlier, the OMB’s decision rendered this past Friday upheld my right to appeal. It’s a small consolation, but offers some validation for the merits of my concerns about the rezoning and the impact it might have on the Town.

The Process:

Since January I have been spoken to a number of people about the appeal, including those likely to be impacted by any lessening of the 3-B requirements in the Official Plan. Concern was expressed, but over time it became obvious that there was no interest in investing in the appeal process, either emotionally, publicly, or financially. My sense after the first appeal hearing was that it would take more than $20,000 to mount a credible appeal of both the Rezoning and the OPA. It’s likely that the Oastler Park Plaza people spent more than $10,000 to appeal my original Rezoning appeal, and that was just the first period of the game that would likely go into overtime

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the response of the business people in the downtown with regard to the issue. There certainly was concern, but it was a shared concern that no single individual or business felt hurt them specifically or immediately. It’s a variation of the commonly discussed term – Tragedy of the Commons. Because no single individual would be immediately hurt, there was no obvious reason to stand up.

What surprised me was a party who contacted me early in the process and expressed support, with the suggestion of financial and logistic resources to put together the necessary documentation to support an appeal that might win the day. They took a bit of my time and in the end didn’t even have the courtesy to promptly respond to an email once push came to shove. They were playing a game that I recognized they might be playing early on in the process. But they claimed to be sincere, and in the absence of contrary information, and being the appeal’s best hope for success, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

The Decision:

Late last week, and especially after the Province’s OPA decision, It became plainly obvious that the best intentions of others were not going to turn into material support. At that point I realized that no one cared enough about the implications of the Town’s rezoning and Official Plan Amendment to step up and support my appeal logistically or financially. Given that I would personally not be damaged by Council’s decision to allow the bank to move to the south end, and it would cost me thousands to properly carry the appeal forward, I decide to fold the appeal. Just like poker, if the cards don’t warrant raising or you are out of chips, the right thing to do is to fold. There was no room for bluffing when it would cost thousands to stay in the game and there was no personal payoff even if I had won the appeal. There would perhaps have been that nice warm feeling of having supported the Downtown. The same kind of nice warm feeling when you piss your pants?

The Future:

I think we can imagine the future already, not so much because of my decision to fold the appeal, but rather the Province’s decision to allow some grocery stores to sell beer and wine. You may have noticed that our local Sobeys has started selling beer and wine. My casual observation suggests that it has further increased their business. I have seen any number of people walking to the cash register with a six-pack in their carts, that didn’t require them to head to the Downtown. Of course perhaps they just wouldn’t have bought that six-pack or bottle of wine, so the Downtown lost nothing. Yeah, sure! In effect the second “B” restriction, booze, has already moved out of the Downtown. The only nail left to put in the figurative coffin is a restaurant in the south end serving alcohol. I understand there are individuals ready to make this happen. With the Royal Bank heading to the south end, and booze at Sobeys, I can’t imagine that Council will be in any position to oppose restaurant rezoning. The Town’s recent decision to apply for the right to approve their own Official Plan amendments would streamline the process. This is despite Mayor McGarvey public statement that he will not approve the move or establishment of any business that would be in contravention of the 3-B regulations. He has shown in the past that he can be ‘flexible’ if there are moneyed interests involved. These are the folks who can drive the local economy and they can’t be ignored or dismissed.

The real test will come in the next few months. The LCBO’s lease in the downtown will expire by October of 2018, and I understand that they are itching to get out of the Downtown and into a facility in the south end. And there are people with the land and resources to provide them with exactly the type facility they might want. And the Beer Store would like to do nothing more than get out of the real estate business and rent space in the south end. These are the near term ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to the future of the 3-B and the Downtown.

How will the fast food joints across the street from the LCBO do now that tourists or folks from Seguin and Carling who need (want?) a six-pack, or a bottle of wine, can avoid traffic and limited parking by picking it up at Sobeys? What about the downtown banks? How many people will move to the Royal Bank because it’s more convenient, and right beside Walmart? One stop less.

No, the town is not going to go to hell with this change, morally or financially. In fact the Town will probably benefit with booze and bars heading to the south end. Any development in the south end will result in additional property assessments that will increase the Town’s tax revenue base. It’s possible that the assessment base of the Downtown may drop, but not nearly as much as the south end development revenues will increase.

The Downtown will need to roll with this punch. Don’t bet on everyone’s hope that waterfront development will increase traffic and business to the Downtown. It won’t happen for the simple reason that the weather in Parry Sound sucks between November and April. You can’t create a stable economy based on four months of beautiful weather, especially if that weather is available to neighbouring communities. I love winter in Parry Sound, when there is snow and the Big Sound is frozen over, but that’s not November, December and April. Sometimes it’s not even January and March. Most people don’t like the snow, and certainly aren’t going to come to Parry Sound’s downtown in the winter to sit in a hotel or to shop. Casino anyone? Wait, that won’t be in the Downtown. Or might it?

There is the possibility though of turning Parry Sound’s downtown into a residential centre, with an emphasis on senior and social services. The Downtown has little charm in terms of wide treed streets and classy old buildings that can compete with Muskoka. Two very busy train tracks further detract from any charm that might be possible. But, the Downtown is perfectly functional and will appeal to many who have more limited means. This is a transformation that will be slow to develop and will be painful for many businesses.

Development in Parry Sound, even in the south end, has limitations as it currently exists. This may explain the Town’s interest is extending Parry Sound Road to Oastler Park Drive and their approval a couple of years ago of the rezoning of the properties north of Starbucks. If there is to be development there needs to be land. If Parry Sound doesn’t provide it, the development will move to Seguin, just up Oastler Park Drive. These Seguin properties may not have water and sewer services, but some businesses will not require them. Not all LCBO buildings are located in towns with water and sewer service. With property taxes in Seguin one-third those of Parry Sound, a well and septic, or holding tank, may just be financially attractive.

I do feel sorry for some of the business in the Downtown who will see things change, most notably those businesses that depend on regular traffic to sustain business. Things seem to have reached a point where change is assured. But, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless of course sea level is rising and you own beautiful oceanside property.

One Last Comment:

What really pissed me off about the whole process, and motivated me in part to appeal the rezoning, was the documentation provided in support of the rezoning application. An important part of the rezoning process is the requirement for the applicant to provide an independent opinion on the potential impact of the rezoning on the Downtown. In the case of the Oastler Park Plaza rezoning this involved planning and economic statements. These reports are expected to be independent and unbiased. While it’s possible to ‘shop’ for an opinion, I have seen this often done in legal situations, the analysis still needs to, at the very least, provide a sense of independence.

My concern is not with the conclusions reached by the reports that the rezoning would not have any negative impact on the Downtown. I think they are wrong, but we are all permitted our own analysis and conclusions. What pissed me off is that they actually didn’t do the necessary work to reach an unbiased opinion. This was evidenced by the reports, which are riddled with errors, most notably the location of businesses and even the Downtown. The Downtown area was expanded a couple of years ago, but this was not reflected in the two reports. They still made reference to the older footprint. Would the revised Downtown size have impacted their analysis and recommendation? Absolutely not. The consultants knew what their client wanted and they were prepared to deliver it. These are the same parties that advised the Town that the Walmart development would not negatively impact the downtown. At the very least they could have updated their earlier analysis to reflect the current situation even if their opinions were already fixed.

Is anybody else paying attention to the changes? Does anybody really care? It’s a sad consolation that regardless of what people do or don’t do it won’t impact my personal situation. You need to care, but not too much.