Jarvis: Smart and unique economic development on County Road 50

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Windsor Star/Anne Jarvis




Lovely, historic County Road 50, with its farms and wineries, is the focus of one of the smartest, most unique new economic development plans in the county.

The Town of Essex proposal, called the Rural Business and Tourism Community Improvement Plan, offers eight different financial incentives for businesses along County Road 50, from waiving development fees and tax increases to grants of up to $12,000 for improving facades and landscaping, creating farm businesses, outdoor cafes and bed and breakfasts and hiring architects and landscapers to design the work.

Similar plans are offered in downtowns in county municipalities and target commercial buildings. But this is the first in a rural area and the first to target agriculture. And it focuses on one road, County Road 50 from County Road 41 to Arner Townline, the breadth of the town.

Eighty per cent of the town’s economy is rural, and agricultural tourism — from farm tours and wineries to pick-your-own produce and farm-to-table dinners — is big. 

“I want to create an agricultural experience,” said economic development officer Nelson Silveira. “If we can link (that) with tourism, we’re not only diversifying businesses but the rural economy.”

County Road 50, Canada’s southernmost drive that hugs Lake Erie, is one of the prettiest drives in the county.

It’s also one of the most historic. The first Europeans settled there in 1792. Many were British soldiers and United Empire Loyalists who were granted land after the American Revolutionary War. They began building Front Road, also known as the Road to St. Thomas, along the shore in 1837. We call it County Road 50 now. Some of these pioneers are buried in Tofflemire Snider Cemetery on the same road. It’s  one of the oldest cemeteries in the county, designated a historic property last year.

More than two centuries later, County Road 50 is a growing destination again. There are six wineries. North 42 Degrees Estate Winery just added a two-storey building that looks like a ski chalet, with a vaulted pine ceiling and massive stone fireplace. It houses a bistro and tasting bar. There’s also The Fruit Wagon produce stand, part of Doug and Leslie Balsillie’s apple orchard, which also hosts a fall Dinner in the Orchard and launched a line of apple cider vinegar. And there’s a lavender farm, the John R. Park Homestead and the harbour.

County Road 50 also forms most of the South Essex Barn Quilt Trail, one of many across Ontario and Canada that feature barns with large, square wood blocks painted to look like a block from a quilt. Each tells a story, and they draw attention to our rural heritage.

All this has spawned more new businesses, like bike tours.

Explore the Shore — the annual tour of County Road 50’s delights, with 38 stops this year — draws 5,000 people over two days.

“We’re trying to play to County Road 50’s strengths,” said Silveira. “We have businesses popping up, and we want to jump on that success.”

He’s hoping to encourage new businesses, everything from more wineries, microbreweries and distilleries to markets, cheese factories, bakeries and abattoirs, and more new products, like the Balsillies’ apple cider vinegar. And he wants more bed and breakfasts to encourage people to stay longer.

“It’s a pretty exciting place to be,” said Leslie Balsillie. “This is just helping the momentum that’s already there.”

Their family’s business has “totally changed” in the last 10 years, she said.

Ten years ago, their retail business stopped after Labour Day. Now, it continues all fall. So they began selling fall vegetables and making apple cider vinegar.

“We can’t believe the increase in the number of people stopping in, the new people stopping in,” she said.

The town will host a public meeting on the plan in the new year. Then council, which has already budgeted $100,000 for these incentives for the hamlet of Colchester, will vote on expanding them to County Road 50.