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News, Wednesday, July 31, 2002, p. A01
Tony Fitzgerald
The Hamilton Spectator

Fort Erie - Waves ripple over the white sandy beaches in front of the cottage while the sun glistens on expensive, shiny yachts moored in the bay.

These aren´t really cottages. They may be summer residences but they´re really sprawling mansions. In most cases, Lincoln Navigators are parked in the private driveways.

This is Fort Erie, the American playground.

Here, the sandy shores of Lake Erie are largely inaccessible to local residents. For generations, these expanses of lakefront have been the private summer playground of wealthy families from western New York.

Every summer they come across the Niagara River and head to cottages, gated estates or shoreline driveways where there´s usually not an Ontario licence plate in sight.

Anyone living in Fort Erie is accustomed to a strong cultural overlap with their American neighbours at the other end of the Peace Bridge. As for foreign ownership of the town´s best waterfront properties, the locals may not like it, but they see it as a fact of life.

"It´s been like that for more than 100 years," said Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop. "That hasn´t changed too much."

The first American invasion was during the War of 1812, but they were more successful 80 years later when those who did well when Buffalo was North America´s industrial centre bought lakefront properties along the Canadian side.

There are no such beaches on the American side.

Today there are more than 1,780 of these cottages, stretching 25 kilometres along the shores of Lake Erie from Erie Beach to Abino Bay, an enclave just west of Crystal Beach.

Fort Erie has a population of 29,000 and one in five of all households in the town is owned by an American.

"There is a historic, geographic and cultural link to the U.S.," says Redekop. "The fact of the matter is, not only do they come and visit here but we cross over for sporting events, theatre and dining. Many people have relatives that live on one side or the other.

"People in Fort Erie have more in common with the people in Buffalo than they do with the people in Grimsby or Hamilton."

Fort Erie itself, and its businesses, have been just a blur for most Ontarians as they rush to the Peace Bridge.

That´s why the town has hired James Thibert to manage economic development and tourism.

Thibert is from Sault Ste. Marie. He´s intrigued by Fort Erie´s demographics.

The town wants him to help capture more of the money of those dashing past, as well as the Americans, for the local economy.

"Most Canadians have heard of Fort Erie but they probably couldn´t put their finger on it on a map," he says. "Canadians on their way to Buffalo will pass a lot of Buffalonians on the Peace Bridge because they´ve been coming here for 100 years.

"While all those people from Toronto are heading to Darien Lake, the Americans are coming here because they know a good thing when they see it."

Far from seeing the American lakefront as a contentious issue, newcomer Thibert says it should be used as a springboard for economic development and tourism.

"The American residents are professional or retired business people," said Thibert. "Most properties are generational and that means they aren´t going anywhere. We have a tremendous asset that has been overlooked because it was so commonplace to the locals. It´s just been that way."

Thibert has initiated a survey of all 1,780 American residences. There are more but these are the ones who have their tax bills mailed to U.S. addresses.

The survey´s goal is to find out what the Americans like about Fort Erie, what they want and how to improve.

What the survey has been telling the town is that the Americans are very happy with their life and surroundings but would like to see more restaurants in the town. They also want a Home Depot.

Fort Erie´s vision is to build on tourism. Gaming -- the racetrack, slots and bingo -- attracts 9,000 people a day, or close to 3.3 million a year. Thibert said the town needs some smart Canadian investors to do what the Americans have done, invest in the town, and "to figure out ways to get those (3.3 million) people to shop in their stores."

The town plays host to a variety of festivals, including Highland Games, Friendship Festival and The Crossing -- a celebration of the escape of runaway slaves, plus a large native powwow and a re-creation of the War of 1812 called Living History Weekend.

Excavations near the plaza that abuts the Peace Bridge as it swoons into Canadian soil have uncovered one of the largest Indian burial grounds ever found, containing remains of an estimated 50,000 people. It´s the largest aboriginal archeological site in eastern North America.

Zoos, a wildlife park, opened in Stevensville.

An equine centre near the racetrack is being planned for the thousands of horse enthusiasts from Ontario and western New York.

"Our challenge is to attract some of those people going to Niagara Falls," Redekop said.

"All we have to do is tap in on 10 per cent of that traffic. That would be a significant number of people coming to our town."

But the mayor says it´s just as important to maintain greenspace and attract development. Americans are again leading the way. One of them has invested $17 million in a large IGA complex. Wal-Mart has land cleared for a store.

"They know the population will sustain them," Thibert said. "The real cream is the Americans that come over."

But while Redekop and Thibert take a new view of the U.S. presence as a vehicle to drive economic change, the summer residents from New York State probably like things the way they´ve been for a century or so.

For Americans, besides the allure of quiet beaches, one big attraction of buying or maintaining Fort Erie properties is the exchange rate on the dollar.

Well-known U.S. families such as the Knoxes, former owners of the Buffalo Sabres, and the Kimberlys, of Kimberly-Clark paper fame, are among Fort Erie´s lakefront summer residents. Bob Rich of Rich Stadium and his family have a five-property compound in a gated community near Abino Bay.

Adam Joon, the survey co-ordinator, says a majority of the residents still come from
western New York but they are seeing more retired people from St. Louis, Georgia and Florida making the trek north to avoid the stifling heat.

If they fly flags, they fly both the Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf.

Since there are so many American owners, it is very rare to find these properties listed by Canadian realtors. They sell through U.S. realtors and get U.S. dollars.

One mansion on Erie Road could be described as a handyman´s special -- it really needs work -- but the asking price is $450,000.

"Few Canadians will pay these prices," Joon said. "It´s worth more to Americans. It´s their playground and they´re going to pay a premium for it." Their toys are right there.

The Buffalo Yacht Club and Buffalo Canoe Club are located at Abino Bay, likely making them the only two clubs with clubhouses in two countries.

Then there is the Cherry Hill Country Club. It has a $50,000 (US) initiation and a $10,000-a-year membership. Ninety-eight per cent of its members are American. Six other golf courses are mere minutes away.

Locals say there is a love-hate relationship with the Americans. They hate that they have the beach but love that they do so much for the town´s economy.

The Americans hate that the town doesn´t maintain their beaches but love that it´s private. Thibert says that when the Americans are in Fort Erie, they use many services such as bookkeepers, lawyers, accountants and bankers.

"They´re making big-time contributions to our economy," he said. "It´s quite dynamic what we get out of it."

Crystal Beach has always been a favourite destination for those south of the border. Back in Buffalo´s heyday when it was the richest city in the U.S., Americans had a ferry, an airport, a zoo, dance halls, saloons and an outdoor swimming pool.

Once some of those closed down, the amusement park moved in.

It closed down in 1989 and Crystal Beach became one of the most rundown areas in Niagara.

But more Americans moved in and that has sparked a revitalization. The beach and racquet club is in one of two gated residential communities along the beach. It´s located where the old roller-coaster used to be. The buildings are Florida design. The smallest is worth $200,000 (US).

It´s very private but within earshot of public beaches. The town of Fort Erie purchased 0.4 hectares (four acres), including 122 metres (400 feet) of beachfront to go along with the existing 244 metres of public beach.

Crystal Beach itself is changing. Plans are to turn it into another St. Jacobs, complete with antique markets and cafés along the streets.

Buffalo native Bill McFadden owns one of the beachfront retreats. He´s 50-something and declined to say what he does for a living but looked successful.

He´s been coming across the border for as long as he can remember. He likes that Fort Erie is safe, only minutes from his city home and provides a unique getaway.

"Fort Erie/Crystal Beach are one of the most picturesque spots," said McFadden. "There are historical attractions, scenery and some of the greatest beaches around.

"This is my Cape Cod."

You can contact Tony Fitzgerald at or at 905-526-2467.


Population: 29,403 (2000 Census)
Summer population: 40,000
U.S. visitors to Fort Erie annually: 3,285,000
Number of passenger vehicles crossing the Canadian/U.S. border at Fort Erie´s Peace Bridge annually: 6,500,000
Canadian population within a 90-minute drive from Fort Erie: 7,085,000
U.S. population within a three-hour drive of Fort Erie: 9,575,000
Source: Fort Erie Economic Development & Tourism Services


Photo: Ted Brellisford, the Hamilton Spectator
This luxury gated development on the site of the former Crystal Beach amusement park is occupied almost exclusively by Americans, as is most of the beachfront in Fort Erie.
Photo: Buffalo residents, with no beachfront on their side of the Niagara River, bought up the beach lots in Fort Erie and created their own clubs, including the Buffalo Yacht Club.
Photo: James Thibert points out the rare dots of Canadian-owned beachfront in eastern Fort Erie.

Category: Front Page; News
Uniform subject(s): Sports and leisure; Statistics; Travels, adventures and tourism
Story type(s): Special report
Edition: Final
Length: Long, 1420 words
© 2002 The Hamilton Spectator. All rights reserved.
Doc.: 20020731HS598364

This material is copyrighted. All rights reserved. © 2001 CEDROM-Sni