A public forum on the proposed Sidney Gateway retail project saw a good crowd at the Mary Winspear Centre, but few panel speakers.
In fact, all invited speakers to the subject of the commercial site’s future either turned down an offer to attend, or cancelled before the meeting started.
The forum was hosted by the Support Our Sidney (SOS) group, with a goal of educating the public and local business owners about the potential for competition — the pros and the cons — of the proposal.
SOS spokesperson and main organizer Richard Talbot led the discussion. He outlined the project, being proposed by the Victoria Airport Authority on land west of the Pat Bay Highway along Beacon Avenue.
“Suddenly, there is competition on the horizon,” Talbot said at the outset. “And no one was doing anything about it.”
In July, the Airport Authority (VAA) officially announced their plans to look into developing the 10-acre property. They had earlier entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Town of Sidney, which owns a small piece of land adjoining the VAA land. The partnership is to explore options.
The VAA and its chosen project manager, Omicron, revealed preliminary site concept plans in July, showing potential for a variety of tenants, from a grocery store to professional office space. To date, no official plans have been submitted to the Town for review.
At this point, the VAA is seeking to have the land removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The site is mostly federal land and technically does not fall within the authority of the ALR. However, the VAA has stated it wants to act in good faith.
The idea of a new retail centre so close to downtown Sidney has created a stir — adding to local discussions about other proposed commercial sites at Jesken (Central Saanich) and Sandown (North Saanich).
Talbot has called the Gateway proposal, “the best of a bad bunch,” but at the same time has stated there could be some positives for Sidney if it goes ahead. He said the status quo in the downtown Sidney business community is “very fragile and unstable,” an opinion he has held since last year.
“There is potential synergy with the rest of Beacon,” he said. “There’s potential for (Gateway) to create jobs and generate new revenue.’
On the down side, Talbot said Gateway could pull existing shops out of downtown Sidney, as well of some of its bottom line.
Such a project has plenty of other impacts, he noted, from its impact on transportation and the major intersection of the highway and Beacon Avenue. Talbot said it could also galvanize existing commercial property owners into creating an overall vision for downtown Sidney — and acting on it.
“There could be a new vision for what Sidney looks like.”
Members of the audience were allowed to pose questions. Talbot tried to address most of them, calling on some members of the audience — such as local real estate agents and Peter Wainwright, the lone Town councillor at the meeting.
People asked about the proposed tenants at Gateway, as well as about the VAA’s other plans for its land. It’s a this point that the forum became very speculative. Talbot reminded the crowd that all plans for the site are conceptual, a fact echoed by Wainwright.
“We won’t see development happening if they don’t get the Town’s approval,” he said.
Wainwright noted that the Town’s MoU with the VAA will ensure that the airport authority will respect Sidney’s zoning bylaws.
Questions ranged from the potential for a roundabout on the highway and downtown themes, to the idea of a hotel for the Gateway site and even one about the chances of all three developments going ahead.
Talbot noted that many of the answers to those questions can only come when the VAA and Omicron are ready to announce actual plans for Gateway.
“We probably won’t see large box stores in this development, probably,” Talbot said. “But we don’t know the tenants, so it’s hard to judge.”
He said the intent of the SOS forum was to engage residents and business owners in the discussion — and to try to set the groundwork for his group’s message to Town council.
“We need to start a vision for the community,” he said.