Article: Kincardine's Road to Recovery

Posted Saturday November 21, 2020

Posted By: Kelly Mcdonald

Category: Blog

Article as published in: Toronto Sun, Winnipeg Sun, Calgary Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Cochrane Times Pot, Goderich Signal Star & Paris Star

Kincardine's Road to Recovery

During a recent visit to the charming beach community of Kincardine, on the shores of Lake Huron, I was struck by the sight of a young child running down the middle of the road. She was followed by her mother pushing a stroller.

In their midst moving in both directions on the road, were people of all ages from pre-schoolers to seniors. People walking, on road bikes, mountain bikes, stand-up scooters for the young and sit-down electric scooters for those with mobility issues.

On this particular road trip, the road itself was the star attraction because unlike Saturday mornings in previous years when cars ruled the road, vehicles were now prohibited from the downtown core.

Word had gotten out not only among locals, but tourists, that you could visit Kincardine over the course of the summer and walk down the street to your heart’s content without a worry about cars. Hence the steady stream of people showing up.

To understand how this urban transformation came about, rewind to the spring of this year, when a large percentage of businesses were forced to shut down for several weeks in the wake of COVID-19.

‘Devastating’ was probably the most appropriate word to describe the impact the virus was having on the local economy, with 58% of businesses surveyed in April indicating they ran the risk of closure by the end of the year, if circumstances didn’t change.

If COVID-19 was the proverbial ‘rock’, then the ‘hard place’ for the municipality was the reality that for several weeks this summer, the main road running into Kincardine from the south end would be closed for repairs to the bridge the road traverses.

Further adding to their woes, was the fact the line-up of festivals and events that drew the crowds and helped drive sales for the downtown merchants, had to be cancelled as well over COVID-19 related safety concerns.

Kincardine’s response to these seemingly insurmountable challenges was to have the courage to try something that had been done previously for a day or two during festivals, but never for the entire summer: close the community’s core to vehicular traffic as a way to draw more residents and visitors, concurrently providing extra space for safe distancing.

In hindsight, “we knew that the concept of closing the streets to traffic to allow greater pedestrian movement wasn’t a new,” recalls downtown development manager Rick Clarke. “But it was new for most parts of Ontario and it was certainly new for Kincardine.”

Clarke says the initial ‘knee-jerk’ reaction from some was “I’m going to lose my parking spots and people won’t be able to park in front of my business,” while others bought into the vision right away of creating a unique pedestrian environment, “not unlike what cities in Europe have done.”

In a spring survey to determine whether to proceed with the street closure, the overwhelming majority in the south end of the downtown where most of the shops and restaurants reside voted in favour of the closure, although the idea of closing the core for four days was reduced to Friday through to Sunday evening.

The north end, which has more office space and fewer shops, failed to get the requisite majority – and yet surprisingly, some of the more vociferous business owners later complained they were being left out.

Despite these mixed results, recognizing they had to do something to offset the carnage caused by COVID-19 in a community where the vast majority of businesses are locally owned and family run, Kincardine opted to move ahead with closing the southern block and adjacent side street.

The municipality’s gutsy mindset is best summed up by Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie, which is “you’ve got to make decisions… you can modify them… but if you wait for everything to be perfect, then you’d be waiting until next summer.”

So what is the outcome of the downtown closure now two months on? Responding to a mid-summer survey of shopkeepers, one owner (Jaye Bayer of Harbour Rose Boutique) reported sales comparable to the town’s peak times when festivals were taking place.

Scott Duncan, owner of The Daily Grind coffee shop reported record daily sales on a recent Sunday. And to date, over 90 percent of owners in the area currently closed to traffic are either in favour or neutral to the idea of continuing the program in 2021 – virus or not.

But arguably the most telling response to the survey according to Ashley Richards, the executive director of Kincardine’s chamber of commerce has been that “retail and restaurants outside of the summer access area (that’s currently closed to vehicular traffic) are indicating clearly that they would like to be included… should this happen again in 2021.”

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Mark Wessel lives in Collingwood, Ont. and is a passionate advocate for living more sustainable at home and in the greater community. Visit his blog at

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