When Richard Talbot first arrived in Sidney 25 years ago, he discovered a sink-or-swim, almost Darwinian attitude when it came to the fortunes of its downtown.
“Back east, every municipality fights tooth and nail for its downtown,” said the founder and current president of Supporting Our Sidney, a coalition of downtown merchants and Saanich Peninsula residents. “Here, the approach was very much, ‘Well, just let the market look after itself. If we have three shopping centres around us, that might be a good thing. More people might come to Sidney.'”
That argument, however, failed to consider what large, big-box shopping centres on the edges of the community might do to downtown retail environment, he said.
Talbot’s reference to the three shopping centres speaks to the origins of the group, which originally called itself Save Our Sidney.
“It was North Saanich pressing ahead with Sandown that really triggered its start,” he said. “Once North Saanich decided to press ahead with Sandown, these threats weren’t just hypothetically — they were actually starting to happen. Very shortly after, Gateway was also announced and then it was pretty much Save Our Sidney.”
Two of those developments — Jesken Town Centre Development and Sidney Gateway — never got off the ground. In the fall of 2018, a new Canadian Tire store opened at Sandown Park Shopping Centre.
A handful of years later, the group adopted its current name in a change that also reflected a philosophical evolution.
“Instead of being in an antagonistic position against council, the role is to be supportive of council for downtown, and supportive of the [Sidney Business Improvement Area Society],” he said. “In other words, we provide support to the existing entities, but at the same time maintaining what I call a watchdog role and flag anything that is not to the benefit of the downtown retailers.”
The 200-plus members of the organization, split roughly between residents spread across the Saanich Peninsula and downtown retailers, now face another threat to Sidney’s downtown: COVID-19.
Speaking to the Peninsula News Review during the early phases of the lockdown, Talbot, a retail consultant himself with decades of experience, feared for downtown Sidney in proposing various relief measures, some of which have found their way into municipal policy.
Against this backdrop, the group has acted as a resource and sounding board for retailers as well as customers. For example, SOS solicited its members for items which customers will be looking for before returning to shops and items retailers would like to see, so they and their staff can safely reopen their stores. The group plans to share the list with Sidney council and Sidney BIA.
“We all believe that this pandemic is not going to go away,” he said, explaining the rationale behind the list. “The way we shop is going to change dramatically. It has been encouraging really, the number of retailers who have reinvented themselves.” He noted a number of local retailers have switched to online delivery or chosen to stay open.
“You pretty much have everything covered without going to a major supermarket,” he said. “Played correctly, it will be a big plus to local retailers. I sure as heck hope that those who had the guts to stick with it will continue to be supported by the residents.”
Overall, Talbot senses an eagerness among retailers and ordinary residents to reopen the local economy. “But they all appreciate that there must be some pretty stringent health regulations to make that happen.”
Looking ahead, Talbot fears the economic aftermath of COVID-19 could leave behind a glut of vacancies and change the appearance of downtown Sidney.
“The pressure is going to be on council to lift the bylaw regulations that at the moment restrict the uses of Beacon Avenue to non-retail kinds of uses,” he said.
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