Quaint town grapples with Big Mac attack

Ronald McDonald is making Gerry and Ginny Dyck grimace.

The Toronto Star
January 1, 2001

Quaint town grapples with Big Mac attack
Eric Shinn

Ronald McDonald is making Gerry and Ginny Dyck grimace.

For 35 years, the Dycks have lived on the main thoroughfare into Niagara-on-the-Lake, on Highway 55 at East West Line Rd. There, they operate a Victorian rooming house and sell artefacts of Canadiana at their Nothing New antique store.

Tourists visit while in town to sample wine from the surrounding vineyards, enjoy plays during the Shaw Festival or dine at the town’s fine historic restaurants.

And soon visitors might be able to scarf down Big Macs and Happy Meals, too.

McDonald’s recently submitted a site plan to the town for construction of a franchise next door to the Dycks. They are livid – and they’re not alone.

“We’ve never fought like this before,” says Gerry Dyck. “This is a historic town. People come here because it’s not cluttered…I pick up McDonald’s garbage here already and the nearest one is miles away”

It’s not just that the king of corporate fast food is making inroads in the quaint and elegant town of about 13,000. The McDonalds’ proposal follows a flurry of new development that some fear will permanently mar the face of one of Ontario’s prettiest locales.

“All of my guests have noticed the area’s esthetic decline,” says Margherita Howe, founder and director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy. Howe, a town resident for 45 years, also runs a bed and breakfast.

“We’re just inundated with all these developments – and McDonald’s is the coup de gras,” she says, making a subtle pun.

The town council may review the McDonald’s plan as early as this month, says Lord Mayor Garry Burroughs. “It’s a situation we have to deal with. We’re hoping it’ll set an example. McDonald’s is normally a very good corporate citizen.”

McDonald’s already has 19 locations in the Niagara Region.

Though vacant, the property in question has been commercially zoned since 1974, meaning “there’s no ability to say who can play the game and who can’t in commerce,” Burroughs adds.

Across the Niagara River in Lewistown, N.Y., a McDonald’s has been built in a historic building, as was done in Quebec City. In Hudson, Ohio, and Hilton Head, S.C., McDonald’s has built restaurants from scratch matching historic town design characteristics.

But the Niagara-on-the-Lake site has no historic designation.

“You have to depend on the good nature of the developer, but not many are so disposed,” Howe says.

For its part, McDonald’s Canada states it’s “working very closely with town officials and planners to meet their concerns.”

The corporation’s development plan includes a drive-through restaurant and another building of up to 5,000 square feet. The other building’s use has not been decided yet. It could be to sublet to another business – possibly another chain.

Though vacant, the site is a busy one. At lunchtime, students from Niagara District High School flock across the property to reach the Harvest Barn across the street, so they can buy sweets and fresh food.

Teachers say the 60 full- and part-time jobs to be created by the proposed restaurant won’t be of much use to the students, since most can find higher wages in town.

But not all of the kids agree.

“I kinda like the idea of having a McDonald’s there,” says Errel Wilson, 14. “It would help out a lot of the kids who don’t have money.”

The Grade 9 student at Niagara District also says a design compromise should work “If hey made it look like a stone building or a barn so it fits in with the town, I’d have no problem with that.”

Gerry Dyck’s compromise would be to build the restaurant elsewhere.

“I don’t know why they don’t build it right off the QEW’s Glendale exit,” he says, referring to the highway off-ramp that most visitors take past the bustling Niagara College campus into town along Highway 55. That exit is already cluttered with fast-food outlets and service stations.

Howe would like to see all of Niagara-on-the-Lake historically designated, instead of just the downtown core, as it is now.

Her group is distributing a petition started by the Dycks to oppose the development. The Dycks have collected more than 500 names so far and Howe’s group is adding to the total.

“Development into this area is just criminal,” says Howe. “Once you he one, you’re going to have another and another. They tend to congregate.”

Town council has issued about 100 building permits in the past year, says Howe, and the library, fire hall, courthouse and main bank branch have all been moved to a massive neo-urbanist enclave – dubbed “the village” – on Highway 55 halfway between the QEW and the town.

The Dycks live farther north along Highway 55, about three-quarters of the way into town.

Howe says a hotel may be built on the former site of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Sailing Club, and condos are to be built on the site of the Harbour Inn, which burned down a year and a half ago.

“The government takes great care to promote this town as a gem of Canadian history,” she says. “I remember saying everyone should come to this town – the whole world. And now they have and we’ve spoiled it.”

“My heart goes out to Gerry and Ginny. They’ve had this dear little antique business and now their lives will change. I don’t have any words of comfort for them. I think it’s going to be sad.”

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