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Economic conditions in Sidney ripe for traffic debate

Is a town’s main street and the traffic flow upon it the panacea for local economic woes?

Is a town’s main street and the traffic flow upon it the panacea for local economic woes?

This question is at the heart of the ongoing debate in Sidney over whether Beacon Avenue should be changed from its current mixed two-way and one-way sections to a full two-way traffic pattern. In fact, this notion is at the centre of recent arguments made to Sidney town council.

Former mayor and Sidney business owner Marie Rosko says she has returned to the public forum after hearing from many of her peers who are facing tough economic times. Rosko served as mayor from 1991 to ‘96.

“I have been seeing a lot of information lately from other communities that have reversed one-way streets to two-way streets and it has revitalized the downtown cores and main streets of many towns,” Rosko said, following her speech to Town council Oct. 28 in support of a return to two-way traffic — like it was during her time as mayor.

She is referring to a package of news articles and engineering reports collected by consultant Richard Talbot on behalf of the Sidney Tourism Improvement Group (STIG).

STIG recently started a Two Way All The Way campaign to change Beacon Avenue. The general outline of that information is that some U.S. and Canadian cities have been changing one-way streets to two-way routes and have seen positive impacts on visitor traffic and perhaps even some economic uptick. Most of those articles, however, show the direction change coincides with significant downtown revitalization work.

STIG founding member Denis Paquette said in an email to the News Review their effort does not involve changing the street-scape.

“It only involves changing one lane of traffic,” he stated. “In my opinion, the flow of traffic on Beacon needs to be welcoming and intuitive.”

Rokso is not the only one touting the potential boon to the bottom line that traffic reversal will have. Local proponents for change on Sidney’s Beacon Avenue, like the members of STIG, are running with the outlook that returning the street to two-way status will help reverse economic fortunes.

It was for almost the exact same reason that Beacon Avenue was made a mixed traffic flow street in the first place, says the mayor who oversaw the change in the mid-1990s.

Don Amos, mayor of Sidney from 1996 to 2008, says when he first took office, things weren’t all that rosy for small business in town.

“Sidney is about at the same situation now as when I was mayor,” Amos said in an interview. “Business was down a bit at the time and there were a lot of business groups.”

For a period of two years in his first term, Amos recalled the Town continued a beautification process that had started years before with the building of the Sidney marina.

“That was controversial at the time,” he said, “but it really set in motion efforts to beautify the town.”

Waterfront walkways, family events and streetscape changes were all set in motion — including a public process to look at changing traffic patterns on the main drag. Amos said council of the day were shown two or three proposals for Beacon Avenue, particularly for the section from Fifth Street to the waterfront.

“Issues at the time included narrow sidewalks that weren’t good for pedestrians — or scooters,” he recalled. “When I came into office, the last staff proposal was for a two-way option with larger sidewalks and involved a lot of vehicles making deliveries having to use up parking spaces on side streets to maintain traffic flow.”

By early 1997, Amos said council agreed to a public process to present that two-way option of upgrades to Beacon. He said a consensus arose from residents, the business community and delivery drivers that a one-way flow would be a better option.

“There are no back alleys in Sidney,” Amos said. “People wanted parking, good access and good traffic flow. So, you try to please everyone.”

Council of the day went with that outlook and changed Beacon from Fifth to Fourth streets to one-way traffic for a trial period of one month to get people’s reactions.

“Surprisingly, the majority of the businesses liked it,” he said.

Amos acknowledged that some owners did not and some have remained opposed to it ever since.

“In the first six months that it was in and being constructed, I was hesitant to go out and walk on Beacon,” Amos said, recalling the questions and critiques from people at the time. “It was a significant change to the community.”

After it was done, he said, people got used to it and some said they found it more convenient.

“A few people even said it helped the business community a great deal.”

The next block of Beacon Avenue was completed a year or two later, Amos continued, with the completion of the roundabout and the waterfront portion done at the same time as the construction of the Sidney Pier Hotel.

“It worked very successfully,” Amos said, “up until recently.”

Amos said main street in Sidney has always been made up mostly of mom and pop stores and have always struggled at some level.

“If you don’t own your property on Beacon,” he said, “you’re held up by landlords and it’s tough to make a living.”

When the recession hit in 2008, Amos said things backtracked and people went in search of solutions to the economic doldrums. Today, the Beacon Avenue talk appears very similar to what he went through more than a decade ago.

“Council at the time found it to be a divisive issue in the community.”

They did, finally, make a decision, he added, which is the job of all municipal councils.

“You could consult on this issue forever,” he explained. “It’s nice to get public views but there comes a time to make a decision.”

Amos said he has no strong opinion on whether the street should change, but did caution current councillors to watch the costs.