Sidney’s Beacon Wharf will stay up for now, but the fate of the aging facility will likely remain in the public spotlight as the municipality and the community-at-large wrestle with its future.
Nicole Bengtsson, who helped organize a rally last month to save and refurbish the facility, expressed relief about council’s unanimous decision Monday (Nov. 8) to accept staff’s recommendation to maintain the wharf for as long as possible without replacing it. The staff report did, however, leave the door open to replacement.
Council also voted unanimously to inform Marker Group the municipality will no longer pursue a public-private partnership to replace the facility with a floating wharf featuring a hotel and public space.
“From my point of view, the work is just beginning,” said Bengtsson, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Sidney committee. “The goal is to create a viable plan to restore and refurbish the wharf and arrange some funding that is needed to make this work.” That plan could involve public, as well as private funding, she added.
Council’s decision follows a formal search for options that began with the first meeting of the Beacon Wharf select committee in August 2020.
Coun. Barbara Fallot praised the decision to press the pause button on the process.
“We looked at the cost (of replacing the wharf),” she said. “We didn’t look at the value of something.”
While Sidney’s face is changing, feedback around the wharf issue shows the community wants to preserve a part of its identity going ahead, she added.
“We need something that means Sidney to people,” Fallot said. “Whether it is the wharf like it is today, or something that represents that – we want a flagship, if you will, for Sidney and I think the wharf and the buildings that are there is what the public is speaking to.”
Staff analyzed more than 1,000 formal responses to a survey that asked residents about two formal options: remove the wharf without replacing it, or replace it with a floating wharf as part of a public-private partnership with Marker Group.
Almost 43 per cent of respondents (459) favoured removal without replacement, while the P3 option received 230 responses. Another 293 responses opted for the broad category of ‘other’ with 234 of those expressing what staff call a “preference to keep, maintain, or rebuild as close to the current configuration as possible.”
None of the options generated a majority of support from the public and Coun. Peter Wainwright said the municipality will not be able to resolve the future of the facility until a majority of community agrees on a common vision.
“All of the options that we are looking at would require significant borrowing and the (municipality) does not have sufficient assent-free borrowing to do that, so it would require approval of the electorate and it is almost certain that a referendum would be required,” he said. “And given the input that we’ve got from the survey, it is quite clear there is not an option you could put forward in a referendum that you would expect to pass.”
Coun. Terri O’Keeffe welcomed the recommendation to retain the wharf for as long as it is practical, adding later that the process shows the community wants more options and does not want the municipality to surrender its waterfront to private interests.
But O’Keeffe also poured some water into the wine of those wishing to retain the wharf, as well as the businesses that operate on it.
“Of course, there is a strong attachment to the (Satellite Fish Market),” she said. “It’s one of the few historic buildings left in Sidney. However, that might be, as Coun. (Sara) Duncan said, a challenge based on the realities of climate change and sea level rise.”
Future consultations must also educate the public about the restrictions around flood construction levels and assistance for businesses that face the municipality, she added.
“In terms of costs, a lot of people said they are were happy to pay increased taxes for a new wharf,” O’Keeffe said. “However, there were 42 per cent who said that they wanted to let it go and that is significant. Whatever we do, it is going to be important to let the community know what the actual costs are.”
The municipality must also contextualize any future investments into the wharf relative to its debts and other priorities.
“How will such a large expenditure or borrowing impact not only taxes, but also our ability to provide other things in the community?” O’Keeffe asked. “A large part of our community has concerns about affordable housing and active transportation. We need a new art gallery. The museum is looking for extra space.There are environmental pressures. There are infrastructure pressures. Whatever we do going forward with the public next time, putting it into some kind of context, so that they can see the big picture, is important.”
Council also unanimously voted to have the town begin planning for a re-imagined waterfront within five years, that the next assessment of the wharf takes place in 2023 (rather than staff recommendation of 2024) and that the existing commercial leases on the wharf be extended to the end of 2024 with future extensions subject to the next assessment.
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