Municipal council’s decision to force Lake Manitoba business relocation ‘unethical,’ owner says

A long-standing small business on Lake Manitoba won’t be welcoming tourists for a paddle at the wharf near Steep Rock’s limestone cliffs this summer.

The rural municipality of Grahamdale has told Steep Rock Kayak and Canoe owner Peter Hofbauer to relocate the rental business he’s operated operated on the popular shorefront at Steep Rock — a small community about 200 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg — since 2008.

In November, the local RM council voted against renewing the seasonal $1,000 lease Hofbauer held in 2019 and 2020 and says it won’t invite another business to replace his.

Reeve Craig Howse said council made the decision in order to alleviate safety and traffic concerns by the wharf and to facilitate access to the lake, as part of a longer-term development plan for Steep Rock. There were some close calls last summer between boat launches and foot traffic in the area, he said.

“An accident was gonna happen, and we just didn’t want to see that,” Howse said in an interview Friday.

The local council advised Hofbauer of their decision in a letter in mid-November last year, writing he’d have to “remove all structure(s) from the dock/beach area” by June 1, 2021. Their decision also affects two other owners with boathouses on the public reserve.

Hofbauer, who said he’s saddened by the news, made the announcement over his business’s social media platforms on Thursday using a TikTok video.

He said the local government has taken “drastic steps to remove a local entrepreneur who has already invested two decades into promoting and putting Steep Rock on the map.”

As of Friday morning, his posts had garnered hundreds of comments and shares, along with messages of concern and support from some residents and former tourists to the Steep Rock area.

“Especially during the pandemic … we’re all suffering in some way,” Hofbauer said in an interview Thursday.

“So, to try throw[ing] a stumbling block in front of an entrepreneur like this and a time like this is highly unethical,” he said.

“I have to take care of my mental health because … you’re up at three o’clock in the morning most nights thinking about what to do, after someone who you’ve been helping is prepared to end your career with very little notice.”

‘Willing to work with him’: reeve

Howse said he believes council gave Hofbauer enough time to relocate, saying they aren’t asking him to shut down his business but to take it elsewhere, perhaps moving it to another property of his in Steep Rock.

“He hasn’t approached us, and we’re willing to work with him,” said Howse.

“We hope Mr. Hofbauer will continue to operate his business to the benefit of the residents and visitors to Steep Rock,” the municipality said in a news release Thursday.

Hofbauer said he hasn’t reached out to the RM since receiving the November letter.

“I viewed it as not necessary to negotiate or try to negotiate with them because I’ve experienced harassment and prejudice,” he said. “In some instances, it’s better to have the public opinion help because they can sway a decision more than some unethical councillors might.”

Hofbauer said he was under the impression he and members of the local government would negotiate options after his lease came to an end, but says instead, they bypassed that step.

“I’ve already spent money that I’m paying for until September 2021, so they’ve really given me no time to prepare to dismantle a business and a tourist attraction,” said Hofbauer.

“Not only that, but how would you dismantle a whole business in the beginning of summer and set one up that would be equally effective? It’s impossible.”

Other business interests near wharf

Hofbauer posted about the council’s decision on the eve of a public hearing in Moosehorn, about 30 kilometres southeast of Steep Rock. That hearing focused on a conditional land use application from a private property owner adjacent to where Hofbauer operated his business by Steep Rock’s wharf.

Owner Walter Welechenko’s application asks for permission to create a business on the Steep Rock property he bought last summer, including building guest cabins, opening a beer vendor and running a café.

Welechenko also requested use of the public reserve along the waterfront, north of where Hofbauer operated his canoe and kayak rental business, to set up a lighthouse and spa similar to Winnipeg’s Thermea, with hot tubs and a sauna.

However, he agreed to withdraw these proposals at the public hearing.

Ironically, Manitoba Conservation forced Welechenko to shutter his longtime kiosk at Falcon Lake beach in 2011 after declining to renew his lease there.

While some local residents supported Welechenko’s application, a majority of attendees opposed it, some voicing concerns about parking, public drinking and continued vehicle traffic.

In the meantime, Hofbauer said he figures he’ll have to remove his buildings from the lakefront public reserve by the deadline.

“Perhaps they’re making a mistake by the way they treated me and by the damage they could be doing,” said Hofbauer.

“They could be destabilizing the economy, because there are a lot of people here that can benefit from the spinoff.”

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