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Retail consultant says the time is now to prepare Sidney for a commercial onslaught

A retail planning consultant with an impressive resume of international projects is warning Sidney that commercial growth around them threatens the success of their downtown core.

Richard Talbot is calling on the Town and its mayor to form a task force and, in conjunction with local business owners, work to revitalize Beacon Avenue and attract customers that could potentially be diverted to shopping centres proposed at Sandown Commons and the Jesken Town Centre.

Talbot presented to council on March 17 his findings on the impact of these and other shopping areas in the works or currently under construction. Using information from Statistics Canada on population and average retail sales figures, Talbot estimated Sidney businesses could lose a significant percentage of its customers to these threats.

“This is a crisis and it’s time for action,” he said, calling for a “Save Beacon” task force, led by the mayor and with little time or patience for some business owners’ reluctance towards change.

He noted that already, Sidney has Greater Victoria’s second-highest business vacancy rate at around six per cent, with the highest being View Royal. Talbot suggested that downtown Sidney, with plenty of charity stores and hobby shops, needs more diversity in its retail offerings. the rising vacancies, he added, plus the fact that many retailers are just scraping by, is a concern.

“We need to animate Beacon (Avenue),” Talbot continued. “We need Sidney to glow by day and by night.”

Without significant change, he said, commercial developments in North and Central Saanich — as well as two large shopping projects in Tsawassen — will sap Sidney’s customer base. Talbot listed a variety of options for the municipality to explore, suggesting Sidney has two years before outside retail centres start to take their toll.

Mayor Larry Cross said he has been communicating with Talbot about his concerns for a couple weeks now and shares those worries. He noted that in his own experience, he has seen how downtowns in places like Duncan, Nanaimo and Courtenay were hit hard by the coming of big box stores and took years to recover. In Sidney’s case, Cross said the Town has had advance notice.

As for a task force, Cross said while it’s important to put something together, it might be best to rally the energy of the business community.

Sidney councillors Marilyn Loveless and Mervyn Lougher-Goodey said there is plenty of light shining through Talbot’s doom and gloom scenario.

A worry for me,” said Loveless, “is that this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel the Town needs to be positive and not turn people away with talk of doom and gloom.”

Lougher-Goodey noted that nearly half of Sidney’s population is over age 55, downsizing and chose the Town to be close to its services and shops.

“Sidney is still a destination,” he added, pinning his hopes on a turnaround in tourism.

Coun. Steve Price added the council supports the local business community. Coun. Melissa Hailey said she has still noticed a lack of cohesion among businesses. She said there are issues around the state of some buildings, adding many owners are just too busy running their businesses.

“I had hoped for (cohesion) through the BIA (Sidney Business Improvement Area),” Hailey said, adding she doesn’t see that happening yet.

Cross added he’s been pleading for years for the business community to have a single, strong voice. Talbot said that’s why a task force, if created, would need someone else to drive it, “because we don’t have time.”

Sidney revitalization suggestions

Retail planning consultant Richard Talbot made a series of suggestions to Sidney Town council March 17, on ways to combat the coming tide of commercial developments outside of the community.

• Get the SBIA into high gear – making it 100 per cent to voice of downtown businesses

• Start a mayor’s task force

• Co-ordinate downtown open hours

• Integrate destination attractions

• Improve storefronts and signage

• Streamline Sidney’s architectural style

• Make Sidney’s gateway off the Pat Bay Highway more attractive

• Revise Sidney’s welcoming slogan

• Eliminate the one-way section of Beacon Avenue.