These are Carol Gates’ final days as Chair of the Port Stanley Business Improvement Area (BIA).

Gates, co-owner of GT’s on the Beach with her husband Andy Gates, is stepping down after two terms as the Board Chair, having served from 2011 to 2016, and again from 2019 to 2020.

“Being the BIA Chair gave me a lot of joy for a lot of years, but now it’s time to pass the torch,” Gates said in a recent interview. “I just want to run my own business now. It’s time for someone else to take a crack at it.”

Her departure acknowledges a much broader changing of the guard at the BIA, as two other Board members are also resigning: Windjammer Inn owner and chef Kim Saunders, as well as Carol Thompson, proprietor at Port Lifestyles, and branch lead with Keller Williams Lifestyles Realty.

Continuing on the six-member Board are: Melissa Van Ymeren, part-owner and buyer at Lady Savannah fashion boutique; planning consultant Ted Halwa; and Central Elgin Councillor Colleen Row. The Board manages a $60,000 a year budget.

Port BIA members cast their ballots yesterday to fill the three vacancies. There are four candidates: Dustin Allen, owner of Ports Pets; Kyle Carapanta, owner of Apropos and Apropos for Men; Michelle Graham, a health agency consultant and co-ordinator; and Mickey Nielsen, owner of Paradise Vintage Shoppe. Dianne Wilson, Central Elgin’s Deputy Clerk and Records Management Coordinator, will report the results on the vote later this week. A new Chair will be elected at the Board’s first meeting.

“I think it will be fine,” said Gates. “Fresh blood and ideas will be good.”

“The BIA is the voice of the businesses with Central Elgin Council,” she added. “If the BIA didn’t exist, then it would be up to individual business owners. Port Stanley has a strong Board and even if there are some change in members, it will continue being strong.”

Carol grew up in Chatham. Andy is originally from Union. They have been in the hospitality industry all their lives and first met while working at a restaurant in London. The Gates now have two children, Jonny, 11, and Zach, 12.

GT’s On the Beach opened on Port Stanley’s Main Beach in 1993. Carol started working there in 1995. In 2008, when Carol was two months pregnant with their second child, they pounced on an opportunity to buy the restaurant. They had two children and bought a business in a 22-month period.

“This business has been a labor of love for 25 years,” she said. “So much of my heart has been in this business and this community.”

When she joined the BIA Board in 2011, Gates quickly got to work building a colorful legacy. She was the driving force behind the launch of CanFest, Port’s Canada Day celebration, featuring live music, a boat parade, fireworks and vendors. Francie Patricia Dennison, now deceased publisher of the Port Stanley News, did event fundraising and banking.

“It was a learning curve,” she said. The catalyst for success was Gates’ ability to secure government support. “We got a $33,000 grant from Celebrate Canada to get it off the ground (and) every year we had fireworks, we got smaller grants from Canadian Heritage for Canada Day. I would say that was something that I brought to the Board … applying for some of these grants and getting them. That really helped to stretch our budget over the years.”

Harbourfest and Taste of Port festivals were organized under the umbrella of the BIA and greatly contributed to some memorable community successes. However the BIA ultimately announced that it did not have the volunteer resources required to run the village’s signature tourism events in 2019. At the same time, Central Eglin was placing more and more regulatory demands on organizers, trying to reign in the bi-products of success – large crowds were stressing municipal services.

“If you’re going to be volunteer, it’s got to be something that you love,” said Gates, who also managed the BIA’s digital and social media accounts. “For me, my passion was in the idea of festivals and fireworks and activities and fun in the summer. We didn’t have any of that back then. It was such a proud moment to know I had something to do with it. That was my thing. It really has come full circle.”

Vicci Coughlin, formerly co-owner of the historic Telegraph House Heritage Inn, with husband Jon Coughlin, was an original member of the BIA Board when it evolved from being the Port Stanley Volunteer Business Association (PSVBA), in the early 2000s.

“Carol took over the chair with youth and enthusiasm to help promote the village with her connections for fireworks and Canada Day,” said Coughlin. “My focus was always on beautification and hers was events … the village needed both at that time. We forged a working relationship with the municipality that provided the village with a bigger voice at budget time.

“Carol and I took turns at the Chair because no one else wanted the job,” mused Coughlin. “She did a great job – much better than I – and the village should be proud of the traffic she brought to Port.

“Ontario BIA mandates are usually divided into two parts, beautification and promotion,” added Coughlin. “Port has always been divided on these points: do you put on a promotion to draw customers to town, or do you beautify your village with flowers and benches, so when they come, it looks like they want to return.”