Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford called out Orillia and Barrie at a press conference this afternoon about the recent hike in parking fees to dissuade out-of-towners from using the city's beaches.
Orillia recently instituted new visitor parking restrictions as it scrambles to limit the number of visitors coming to the Sunshine City to enjoy the sunshine and lakes.
Orillia has created small visitor-only parking lots at both Couchiching Beach and Moose Beach. All out-of-town residents must pay $50 to park and $50 to launch their boats from Thursdays through Saturdays throughout the summer.
In an effort to combat overcrowding at the Barrie waterfront, councillors hiked the city's waterfront parking rates from $3 to $10 hourly and from $20 to $50 for a maximum daily fee.
However, the premier called it “price gouging” and said he would reach out to Attorney General Doug Downey, who represents the area as Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP.
“I can’t stand when companies or governments take advantage of people in a crisis,” Ford said at his press conference. “People can barely put food on their tables, they can barely pay their rent, barely pay their mortgage. People are barely holding on by their fingertips and some municipal government wants to gouge you?
"It’s disgusting, in my opinion," he added.
Clarke said the measures are "certainly not a cash grab. It has been exasperating trying to get" the parking issue under control.
1/3— Steve Clarke (@Clarke4Orillia) July 24, 2020
I agree with @fordnation that price gouging is an egregious activity + should be dealt with strongly! I also believe that the Premier made those comments without having the context of what we are experiencing in @cityoforillia, @cityofbarrie + @simcoecounty.
"This is simply a COVID health and safety issue," said the mayor. "We love our visitors, but it would be irresponsible to roll out the welcome mat at this time."
Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman also was not happy with the premier's comments and made his feelings clear in a statement.
"Perhaps the premier is not aware of the overcrowding problem on Barrie and Simcoe County beaches that has resulted partly from the province’s decision to proceed with a phased reopening," Lehman said. "Otherwise, he would have understood that the parking prices are not an attempt to profit, but an attempt to deal with the lack of distancing and overcrowding we have seen, as well as help recoup some of the costs associated with these problems."
The mayor stressed that it's not about revenue from the tickes.
"We don’t want people’s $50 and we don’t want to issue a ton of parking tickets or bylaw tickets – we want to reduce the crowds and help make sure people stay safe," Lehman said. "During COVID, all levels of government have had to be creative and use the limited tools we have to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. We have typically all worked well together and so these comments are disappointing. I’d be pleased to invite him to Barrie to view the situation and discuss this issue if he would like."
Downey confirmed that he had spoken to the premier since the remarks were made earlier today.
Downey said he believes the premier “understands the issues” as they pertain to the fees being an attempt to curb overcrowding and hopes there's a way to balance all that is needed for the area to thrive economically and health-wise.
“I think people recognize that we need to find a balance between bringing business to our city and what municipal council is trying to do, which is drive behaviour that they feel is appropriate for their area,” Downey said. “We have put a lot of effort into bringing people to our downtown and spending money in our region.”
According to a recent report from city staff, in other municipalities around Barrie the hourly rates are $10 in Innisfil, $5 in Georgina, and $3 in Wasaga Beach. Full-day rates are $50 in Innisfil, $25 in Georgina, $20 in Oro-Medonte Township, and $15 in Wasaga Beach.
- With files from Dave Dawson