Downtown Sidney takes look at Gateway

Victoria Airport Authority outlines early plans to Sidney merchants’ group.

Sidney’s newest business organization wants its members to have an influence over a proposed retail development in town, but will stop short of becoming a full fledged lobby group themselves.

Susan Simosko, president of the Sidney Business Improvement Area (SBIA), says as an organization, they want to provide their members the best information available and allow them to make up their own minds about the Sidney Gateway project. The SBIA is not, however, looking to take a lead role for or against the proposed commercial development.

“We are not a lobbying organization,” Simosko said. “We are an organization that works for (downtown business owners).”

That said, she added the board of the SBIA knows that the Gateway is on many people’s minds. As they see one of their roles as providing information to their members, the SBIA hosted a meeting Oct. 20 to talk about what’s known about the Gateway right now. The meeting was a follow-on to the SBIA’s membership survey on the Gateway project, completed last month.

They invited James Bogusz, vice-president of operations at the Victoria Airport Authority (VAA) and Peter Laughlin of Omicron, hired by VAA to develop 10 acres of land on the west side of town, across from the Mary Winspear Centre.

The VAA is proposing a new retail centre — Sidney Gateway — and are currently working to have the land removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve. Once that happens, it’s expected they’ll put an application to the Town of Sidney to have the land rezoned for commercial development.

Bogusz said the VAA wants to take the proposal to the community prior to any of that, in a series of public consultations. He said that will be contingent on whether the Agricultural Land Commission approves the change. He said the VAA will meet in early November with the ALC.

Should they get approval to move ahead, Bogusz said they will hold public meetings prior to taking any zoning requests to the municipality.

The proposal, which came to light last July, is still in its infancy. It has sparked rumours of possible tenants on the site — as well as fear about its impact on the bottom line of existing businesses.

“This is a big change,” Simosko said. “It’s going to be a major change in the town, we can’t deny that. We’re going to have to feel our way ahead here.”

To quell rumours and seek current, accurate information, Simosko said the SBIA felt it was important to hold the meeting for its members. It was not a public session, but was attended by three town councillors and municipal staff, as observers, she said, noting that the municipality itself is a member of the SBIA.

What they learned, Simosko continued, was that the developers are looking for four main site anchors — a grocery store, financial institution, medical facility to attract new doctors and possibly a YMCA. Since the land is not yet zoned for any of this, with many steps yet to come, Simosko pointed out the plans are preliminary at best.

That was echoed by Bogusz, who confirmed the four main anchors. As for the YMCA, he said that was held up as an example, but the idea is to seek out an adult recreation organization for the site.

SBIA members — there were around 70 at the meeting — had plenty of questions, including concerns over the impact on the intersection of the Pat Bay Highway and Beacon Avenue. Simosko said SBIA members, in varying degrees, were both for and against the Gateway — but all seemed willing to listen.

Getting the right information out to the community, said Bogusz, is key to the VAA’s effort. He said transportation issues were the highest priority at the SBIA meeting, adding they will be working with the province as the project proceeds.

He said people do need the right information to make a decision about Gateway — and the VAA plans to deliver that even before they seek approvals from the Town of Sidney.

“Like everybody else,” Simosko said, “we’ll have to wait until after the application is made.”

Even when it happens, she said she’s not sure the SBIA will take a stance one way or the other.

“Our role is not to take a position on issues, only to bring more people to town, more footsteps,” she said, noting the SBIA uses marketing, promotion, event co-ordination and facilitation to accomplish that.

By providing their members more information about the Gateway, she continued, they will be able to influence the direction of the project when the VAA and Town of Sidney make their decisions.