As Toronto Islands reopen, drowning businesses rejoice

Some Toronto Island businesses haven't seen a single customer all summer. As ferry service resumes Monday, they're frantically preparing for a short season, mourning their losses (bye bye, carousel) and trying to recoup some revenue.

One cafe is 'hanging on by our fingernails': Island mainstays prepare eagerly for crowds as floodwaters recede

The first ferries left the dock Monday morning as some island businesses prepare to see their first customers all season. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Amid suspended ferry services and muddied beaches, Derek Davis and his fleet of voyage canoes have carted tourists to and from the mainland since the spring.

But for months there haven't been many of them to transport, he says.

Despite keeping the canoe taxi service open all season, Davis had to cut staff, struggling to stay afloat during the upheaval caused by widespread flooding.

"It's ironic," Davis laughed, "I operate a canoe business and I'm complaining about the water."

Davis, like other island businesses, says he's never experienced such a bad summer. (Supplied by Derek Davis)

Today, he hopes to see lines around the block as island attractions open to the public, and he's rehired his staff to prepare.

Davis is just one of Toronto Island's seasonal operators, and he's no anomaly, despite his independence from the ferry. Cafes, bike rentals and the iconic amusement park all remained dark and quiet through the summer season.

Some, valiantly, tried to overcome the hardship. 

"We've remained open but we've suffered terribly," said Island Cafe owner Maura McIntyre, who's been operating the restaurant for eight years.

She says she's never encountered such a hit, adding she had to lay off her summer staff.

"We're hanging on by our fingernails," she said. "Now we're stocking up, staffing up, just getting ready for customers."

The Island Cafe has been hit hard by the ferry suspension, and they're cleaning for what they hope are crowds of hungry tourists this week. (CBC News)

Across the newly-formed ponds, Toronto Island Bike Rental will open its doors for the first time this season. They've got a fleet of new bikes and about a dozen "quads," shaded four-wheeled contraptions, ready to spin.

But co-owner Hari Rao, who's been renting out bikes here for over 30 years, says he's never experienced anything like this summer.

"August is the only month we have," Rao said. "There are two families depending on this business."

Hari Rao, right, runs Toronto Island Bike Rental with his family and business partner. He's got a new fleet of bikes after a rocky start this year, but nobody's been able to use them yet. (Priya Rao)

Rao originally lost a bid to run the rental business earlier this year, but the winner backed out — after Rao had liquidated his assets, selling most of his bikes at a fraction of their full value.

Rao maintains a sense of optimism despite his misfortune. "I think people are waiting to go on the island," he said. "We think there will be a lot of traffic."

Centreville Amusement Park, which brings in millions of dollars in an average season and usually hires about 400 summer staff, is decidedly unmerry about their losses.

Missing out on over $6 million in revenue this year means Bill Beasley, president of the company that owns Centreville, had to sell one of the park's dearest assets. 

The 110-year-old carousel will make its last rounds on the island this fall before shipping off to its new home in Indiana.

While most of Centreville's rides will be open and running this week, residual damage from flooding means some of the farm animals can't be brought to the island, Beasley said.

Still submerged is one of the park's main attractions. "The biggest hit we've had is to the train ride," he said. "A lot of the tracks are still under water."

As for Monday, Beasley says the park hopes for visitors, but not so many that the crowds overwhelm his staff. He's hired almost 200 new workers, mostly teenagers needing a summer job.

Attractions on the islands, including Centreville, have had to remain closed throughout the normally busy summer months. (Toronto Island Bicycle Rental)

Others, in contrast to Beasley, wouldn't mind crowds. "We're hoping for a bit of a rush," said Jaclyn Palmer, program coordinator with the Sunshine Centre for Seniors, which offers golf-cart tours and crafts for mainland residents.

"We're not-for-profit, so we need to have people over to keep the program running," Palmer said.

The first ferry leaves the mainland at 6:30 a.m. on Monday, which island businesses hope signal the end of this dead, dreary summer. (CBC News)

Given the financial burden of the season's floods, the city says it's working with businesses to alleviate some of the pressure.

"We did take some steps to forgive some of the royalties and payments and fees that are normally collected by the city as a means of helping these people carry on," Tory said Monday morning. "What it becomes is a cash flow problem."

Licence fees for island leaseholders may be deferred by city council, Wynna Brown, city spokesperson, told CBC Toronto.

But Beasley and Rao are looking for more: they hope to see at least of a portion of their rent waived this summer.

Brown did not comment on whether the city was currently considering dropping those fees.

Brown said some parts of the island will be blocked off to the public as it recovers. In the ongoing battle for dry land, the city has used 27 water pumps and over 45,000 sandbags to stymie the encroaching shoreline.

Derek Davis runs a canoe taxi business, but even though his boats didn't need the ferry, he says it's been a hard summer. (Supplied by Derek Davis)

Olympic Island will remain closed to visitors, but Ward's and Centre Island — including the theme park, bike rental and all three beaches — are open to the public starting today.

On a typical warm-weather weekend, Tory said, the islands welcome about 20,000 tourists.

About the Author

Malone Mullin

Associate Producer

Malone Mullin is a digital journalist at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver. She's a former features intern with CBC's national desk and a grad student at the University of British Columbia.