The town of Cobourg, in the province of Ontario, Canada, calls itself Ontario’s “feel good town.” Cobourg is also called the Gem of Lake Ontario, because of it’s appealing location along the lakeshore, and abundant opportunities for feel-good fun and play. The town says it is located just one hour “from the urban sprawl of Toronto.” In its tourism presentation, Cobourg describes its community as “this little gem… an oasis of quiet country life with a fantastic beach, marina and city-style shopping, dining and entertainment. It’s Play time!” But the town’s attitude towards sprawl changed a bit when Wal-Mart came to play. The town’s pitch to visitors still is: “Leave the hustle of city shopping crowds behind! Cobourg is just what you’ve been waiting for — a leisurely pace and great selection. Browse through the shops that line the sidewalks of the picturesque historic downtown… you’ll find more than what you’re looking for, with a wide array of accessories for the home and garden, antiques, handmade soaps and chocolates, fine art, books and clothing. And, really, who can resist bringing home a fantastic pair of shoes? There are shopper-friendly benches along the street to relax. And you’ll want to visit our restaurants, coffee houses and ice cream parlours for a treat or two. Or complete your retail therapy with a spa treatment at one of the nearby salons.” But just in case you’re addicted to cheap, Chinese imports, the town has set aside the Northumberland Mall just “a short drive from downtown,” which “offers a mix of chain stores.” Cobourg is caught between its quaint downtown and farmer’s market — and a huge Wal-Mart superstore proposal. This week, according to Northumberland Today, the town’s Planning Advisory Committee passed by one vote a plan to expand the existing Wal-Mart. By a vote of 3-2, the Committee voted to change a zoning bylaw and amend the town’s Official Plan for land use, so that Wal-Mart could add 64,000 s.f. onto its existing store to add groceries. The only problem is, this Wal-Mart sprawl project is just not compatible with Ontario’s “Places to Grow” policy, which encourages pedestrian-oriented development, access to public transit services, and landscaping. One Commission member, Richard Tyssen, told his colleagues that Wal-Mart was “inconsistent and in conflict with Places to Grow,” because it encouraged regional shopping and forced people to use their cars. “Wal-Mart is surrounded by a parking lot,” he said. “It’s isolated . . . This is not what Places to Grow intended at all. This is the wrong way to go. It’s not pedestrian-friendly.” When he asked his colleagues if they had even read the Provincial Places To Grow policy, only one member of the Committee had reviewed it. Tyssen tried to get the Committee to put the project on hold until the members reviewed Ontario’s policy, and until the town’s Official Plan had been updated. The town’s planning director stated that the Places to Grow policy had to be looked at in context, and that the Wal-Mart site was in fact a business park where Wal-Mart and other big-box stores are already located. One Committee member said that Wal-Mart had admitted that its existing store in Cobourg was a “bottom-of-the-line store” because Cobourg had not requested something better. The Wal-Mart plan was first introduced to the town about six months ago. At this week’s hearing, a Wal-Mart representative said the company needed a larger store so that it could provide a “broader range of grocery products” for shoppers. The company also offered to color the store “buff and earth tones,” according to the newspaper. The retailer claimed that Cobourg was “under-stored” in grocery supermarkets. But Cobourg currently has a Loblaws that will be built right next to the existing Wal-Mart, and a second Loblaw’s grocery on nearby King Street. The final verdict now shifts to the Cobourg Town Council.
Cobourg can’t have it both ways. The Mayor, Peter Delanty, likes to talk about the “rolling, glacial hills” of Northumberland, and the “modern, small town lifestyle” of this town of 18,000 people. In 2006, Money Sense magazine rated Cobourg as the sixth best place in all of Canada in which to live. The Mayor goes out of his way to point out that Cobourg has affordable, “serviced land” available, and a “cooperative, business-friendly council.” The town reconstructed its Main Street seven years ago, and brags of the “renaissance” that has taken place downtown. The Mayor lures visitors by boasting that Cobourg is a “quiet, civilized community,” yet his Planning Committee is surrounding the town with noisy, car-choked big box malls. “Entrepreneurs and business people will find that the town truly is open for business,” the Mayor notes. Readers are urged to email Mayor Delanty at [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Delanty, I would imagine that many people in Cobourg would not ‘feel good’ about the prospect of a huge, suburban style Wal-Mart in your beautiful small community. There is nothing ‘quiet’ or ‘civilized’ about a supercenter, and you will find that it is totally inharmonious with the Ontario Places To Grow policy. This superstore project offers you little added value, because all the town gets out of this is another place to buy groceries. Studies in the United States suggest that for every Wal-Mart supercenter that opens, two other grocery stores in the trade area will close. Cobourg relies on a strong tourism industry. You need to be mindful of choking off your downtown, and forcing visitors to run the gauntlet of every manner of chain store that they can find anywhere in Canada. If you are selling your town as unique, picturesque, and a “gem,” then you don’t want to cloud up the image with another roadside Wal-Mart superstore. This is not worth changing your zoning and your Official Plan over — and I hope if you do — that residents of your attractive town will take the matter up on appeal to the Ontario Board. There are thousands of Wal-Mart’s selling cheap Chinese imports, but only one Cobourg. Which would you rather protect as Mayor?”