Niagara-on-the-Lake continues to support seasonal patios more than three years after they became a fixture in town, but one councillor thinks there’s room for improvement.
“I don’t want to do things piecemeal. I want to do it as a whole so we can look at all the things that are impacting our downtown,” said Coun. Sandra O’Connor.
O’Connor suggested it was time to end the current seasonal patio licence program, which was introduced during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 in response to provincial indoor gathering restrictions.
She would prefer to start fresh with a new approach.
She raised concerns about the seasonal patios’ effects on the heritage of Old Town, loss of space for benches and trees, equal treatment of businesses competing for patio permits and financial losses for the town from patios built on municipal parking spaces.
Seasonal patios, which opened during the tourism season, helped dining establishments keep their doors open during the pandemic and the program has been renewed annually since 2020.
A staff report to council in November outlined the benefits of the new program.
It stated the new program would not need annual approval from council, would introduce application fees to cover administration costs and would charge parking rates to restaurants with patios occupying parking spots.
O’Connor was unable to convince her peers to cut the existing patio program, but they instructed staff to keep working on a permanent program.
There are currently 37 restaurants in NOTL that could qualify for seasonal patio licences, said a staff report attached to the agenda.
Coun. Gary Burroughs wanted to see a cap on them, though staff suggested in its report that a limit could harm business owners.
Seasonal patios occupying parking spots raised financial concerns at a meeting in November.
A staff report answering those concerns said the town loses $12,250 per parking stall, per season as a result of patios.
Coun. Nick Ruller was not hung up on the parking.
“The intent is to provide the parking to support the businesses in the area,” he said.
If the town was attracting additional business with other enhancements, like patios, he said he’d continue to support them.
But O’Connor said the issue was about space, not spending.
“This is going to make our parking downtown worse,” O’Connor said. “The situation is currently inadequate.”
She also argued there was less need for patios now than when the program began.
Social distancing measures are gone and the tourism industry has “rebounded” since the lockdowns of COVID-19, she said.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita disagreed.
“Many of the businesses that have patios, their businesses are still not recovered since COVID,” she said.
“And I think to take something like this away is simply saying, ‘I’m not gonna support the business community.’ ”