Sidney urged to take on economic development role

Mayor's Task Force makes key recommendations to help boost the fortunes of downtown business.

High rents and competition ranks high among the concerns retail business owners have in the Town of Sidney and the Mayor’s Task Force on Downtown Revitalization is calling on the municipality to take a more active role in economic development.

Task force chair Mark Dickinson on Oct. 20 presented to Town council the final report of the group’s activities since it was established in April by Mayor Larry Cross. While the report is fairly broad in scope, Dickinson said the task force’s final key recommendations all relate to the 108 action items determined by the group.

“These key recommendations,” he said, “will have the most significant impact.”

The task force is asking the Town to actively formalize an economic development function. It also asks the Town to review taxation, planning and other policies that may inhibit — or enhance — economic development. The task force also recommends that Sidney support the ongoing marketing efforts of the downtown business improvement area society and to start planning for physical improvement to the downtown — such as gateway and wayfinding signage, Beacon Wharf improvements and other revitalization initiatives.

“Our job was to develop a plan to grow the businesses of Sidney,” Dickinson said. “We recognized that Sidney has many, many silos of interest and we needed to not get bogged down by that.”

Over six months, the task force collected 108 ideas that fall to either the municipality, SBIAS or Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, or a combination of all three, to implement as they see fit. Those ideas — some of which have already been completed — form the pilings under the task force’s four overarching goals: to increase local retail sales by seven per cent per year; see an increase in Sidney’s population to 15,000; have the lowest retail vacancy rate in the region, and; achieve an ‘A’ rating in the 20 Ingredients of an Outstanding Destination — a how-to publication by Roger Brooks that focusses on successful downtowns.

“I have no hesitation in telling you,” Dickinson said to council, “that if we reach these goals, your marching orders to this task force will be realized.”

Currently, however, those four goals seem to be an uphill climb. Dickinson pointed out the increase in sales is realistic, while measuring it will be more difficult but can be taken from provincial taxation statistics. The population jump would reverse the last decline in Sidney — 2006 to 2011 saw a population drop of 1.2 per cent.

The current retail vacancy rate of approximately 10 per cent, according to real estate firm Colliers, has Sidney at the second -highest in the region. Dickinson said the Town’s recent partnership with the SBIAS to create a retail space directory is a positive step.

Dickinson added the Town currently has a ‘C’ rating when it comes to the 20 Ingredients list. He said it could take five years to fix that, but added it is possible.

Dickinson and the council had high praise for the efforts of the task force members. Councillor Marilynn Loveless, who is not seeking re-election this November, said she hopes the report isn’t shelved.

“There’s some valuable information here,” she said.

Coun. Melissa Hailey noted with a 10 per cent participation rate in the business owners’ survey, she hopes local businesses will take notice of the task force’s road map.

“The Town can do a fair bit on its own,” she said, “but it needs the business community to buy-in to go all the way.”

Dickinson said there was a lot of publicity surrounding the task force’s activities, noting most businesses should be aware of what’s been going on.

Coun. Steve Price said the report provides a solid foundation for the next 15 years — as long as a new council supports it after the election. Price, who’s running for mayor, said it has his support now and in the future.

A Town media release Oct. 21 stated the council unanimously endorsed the task force recommendations. While council as a whole expressed their support, their unanimous vote was on a staff recommendation to receive the report, refer it to future council consideration, continue acting on high-priority items to come out of the task force’s report and to push the task force’s key recommendations and further action to after the Nov. 15 election and into the next budget process and the Town’s Action Plans for 2015.