Amherstburg Council approved in principle Monday night a reduced but intensified footprint for Open Air Weekends that will see the popular event run from Friday through Sunday every weekend from May 21 to the end of September.
Council approved the plan and its $91,500 price tag in principle in a 6-1 recorded vote but will still have to vote to earmark funding during Budget deliberations, when it will become clear whether the Town has secured additional grant money for the event, sponsorships or a financial commitment from downtown businesses.
The Town’s Tourism department has proven extremely effective at securing grant money from the senior levels of government and Anne Rota, Manager of Tourism and Culture, expressed hope the costs of Open Air could be offset. She added the department would also seek sponsorships from businesses and local organizations.
Past sponsorships, like the one with the Amherstburg Chamber of Commerce, helped fund attractions like music in the gazebo in King’s Navy Yard Park, just like a sponsorship from Enbridge helps power the River Lights Festival, which kicked off with hot chocolate, carolers and spectacular fireworks last weekend.
This year’s approved footprint opens to traffic the stretch of Dalhousie between Rankin and Richmond that was frequently under-activated with its mix of pedestrians and vehicles, opening up 21 parking spots including two accessible spaces on the edge of the Open Air zone.
And it kiboshes the labour-intensive stop-start model embraced last year that required businesses to tear everything down Friday night and set it up all again Saturday afternoon.
In terms of parking, there are 312 public parking spaces within a 3-minute walking radius of Richmond and Dalhousie and an additional 237 parking spaces within a six-minute walk.
Administration is recommending two accessible parking spots in the King’s Navy Yard Parking lot and the addition of three accessible parking spaces at the other three entrances to the Open Air footprint. Administration will consult with the Town’s Accessibility Advisory Committee on this plan.
Bicycle parking is everywhere and it seemed like Europe some mornings when cyclists from across Windsor-Essex rolled down Dalhousie.
I voted in favour of the proposal because I believe Open Air Weekends has been a boon for the entire Town. It has given us something to celebrate and it allows us to differentiate ourselves even more from other tourist destinations in Windsor-Essex and beyond.
I think it has improved each year and that its potential is boundless. More businesses will be open and activated next year and just imagine the buzz when the hotel opens downtown and public access is restored to the Duffy’s property.
The first year of Open Air was amazing despite the restrictions on entertainment and gatherings, not to mention the fear and uncertainty of COVID-19, and this summer was even better, with the addition of games like Jenga, Ping Pong and Chess.
There were more musical acts and attractions this year and there were two wildly successful Play Amherstburg events, where the streets were populated by laughing children and their parents.
And I think it’s important to remember that Open Air Weekends isn’t just about the burgers and the beers and the tourists, it’s about those local tweens and teens I saw all summer long whizzing down Dalhousie on their bikes and their scooters, or the families playing games like Corn Hole in the street before grabbing an ice cream cone and listening to music in the park.
All summer long I saw people taking selfies in front of those colourful new murals or families taking pictures of their children playing the street games or meeting Disney characters in front of Downtown Espresso Café. All those photos were emailed to friends and families or posted to Facebook and Twitter, landing in inboxes and showing up in social media feeds as invitations and calling cards to come and visit Amherstburg.
Much of the discussion around Open Air has been about the businesses but I think it’s essential we focus on the people as well. And from what I’ve seen, heard, read and experienced, the people just flat out love it.
A survey conducted by Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island of 236 people who attended Open Air on August 7, 8, and 9 found overwhelming support. A whopping 94 per cent of respondents said they loved the event. About 34 per cent of the respondents were from Amherstburg, 47 per cent were from other parts of Windsor-Essex and 19 per cent were from more than 40 km away.
A survey conducted by THRIVE Amherstburg, a Town-based lobby group that researches issues, delegates to Council and hosts informational events, reported similar results. Out of 780 residents, 86 per cent said they wanted to see Open Air Weekends continue. Asked to rate it from 1 to 10 with 10 being exceptional, 43 per cent said 10, 18 per cent said 9 and 20 per cent said 8.
Those surveyed said it could be made better with more live entertainment, more street vendors and greater participation by businesses. I agree with them wholeheartedly and have faith the Town’s businesses and the tourism department will deliver like they always have and that our next instalment of Open Air Weekends will be bigger and better than ever.
We focus so much on finding the silver bullet when it comes to economic development in this Town that we sometimes forget we’re sitting on a gold mine. Our history and heritage. Our stunning waterfront. Our vibrant downtown. Our incredible tourism potential. Let’s promote it, let’s invest in it, let’s celebrate it, let’s Go Aburg.