Armed with an Ipsos Reid survey, diagrams and a slideshow, Tom Sroufe, senior vice president of Wesbild, could do little to change the minds of residents who packed Gibsons council chambers Tuesday night. Despite a few interjections, Sroufe spoke to Gibsons councillors, Sun-shine Coast Regional District (SCRD) West Howe Sound director Lee Turnbull and Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons.
"After surveying 400 residents, the Ipsos Reid survey showed 50 per cent of Gibsons residents are in favour of a Wal-Mart," Sroufe said. "We were hoping for better results. Sixty to 65 per cent would have been more favourable, and a 50/50 split is going to make our job much harder."
Sroufe said that revamping the Gibsons Park Plaza is of great importance, and the addition of an anchor retailer would help to elevate the $44 million leakage leaving the Sunshine Coast.
"In order to capture the $44 million, it will take a lot of something. Small business can't make up that difference," Sroufe said.
The $44 million Sroufe referred to comes from a 2004 gap analysis of the Sunshine Coast (see www.gibsons.bc.ca)."The purpose of the gap analysis was informational," said Coun. Gerry Tretick. "It should not be presented as drawing conclusions. I do believe this town needs a strong business community, and we want more money to come into the community, but I'm not sure the solution presented will do that." Not all shared Wes-bild's idea that in order to capture dollars spent in Vancouver a major retailer like Wal-Mart should be located on the Sunshine Coast. "I've lived on the Coast for 26 years and have a pretty good idea of why people are going over to Vancouver," Mayor Barry Janyk said. "They are combining their trips. The theory that by providing the retailers here isn't going to change that. Part of the experience of going over to Vancouver is going over to Vancouver."
While the addition of a Wal-Mart wasn't favourably received by most of those present at the meeting, council assured Wesbild that no one was opposed to upgrading Gibsons Park Plaza.
"It is our intention for you to succeed in this community. There is no point building something the people won't use," Janyk said.
Environmental concerns was just one of several issues raised by council.
"The area in question is a huge water catchment area," said Coun. Chris Koopmans. "This is a large development that will affect our aquifer. I would hope you would take that into consideration." Urban sprawl, traffic congestion and building communities that were less car-dependent were also on the minds of councillors.
"We have serious concerns over the way our communities are built," said Coun. LeeAnn Johnson. "We would be looking in Gibsons towards businesses that support environmentally responsible practices."
Sroufe touched on the issues raised by council, stressing that their plans have not been finalized and that they are willing to work with council and residents to create a plan that will satisfy the community.
"The 15-acre lot we are planning on developing will not contribute to urban sprawl," Sroufe said. "Urban sprawl would be putting it in Wilson Creek. When Payne Road goes through, the lot will be in a central location, allowing for HOV vehicles that need a centralized community to work."
Recent amendments to the bylaw restrictions for Gibsons and throughout the regional district were also debated.
"I'm asking you to consider your bylaw processes," Sroufe said. "Seventy per cent of the retail in the Town of Gibsons is over the 25,000 sq. ft. cap. If Sunnycrest Mall burned down it would not be allowed to rebuild; we should vote against the bylaws in the name of fiscal responsibility."
In a later move, council approved recommendations that the Town of Gibsons support the SCRD's bylaws restricting retail size.
"We are not married to Wal-Mart," Sroufe said. "I'm willing to tell Wal-Mart that they can't have a big box look, big parking fields or a grocery option. I'm prepared to take that application filed in November and throw it out the window. We will work with council and residents to find a solution."
Discussions continued after Wesbild's presentation outside council chambers with a handful of concerned residents grilling Sroufe over the ethics of Wal-Mart, debating the possibilities of mixed retail and housing use, pedestrian-friendly communities, local business and loss of a community feel.
"I went into the hardware store today, and I needed a replacement piece and they gave it to me free because they had extras," said one of the residents speaking with Sroufe. "If Wal-Mart comes to town that's all going to go away."
Sroufe assured the residents that the Wal-Mart proposal was not set in stone, and Wesbild would work with the community to find a suitable solution.
Wesbild also announced this week that a planned open house for Monday, March 26, has been postponed. Wesbild said they want to make changes to their proposal and plans before presenting them to the public. A new date for the open house has not been announced.
Also this week, the board of directors of the Gibsons Community Initiatives Association (GCIA) made public a statement regarding its position on the issue of large scale retail developments on the Sunshine Coast.
The GCIA is a one-year-old, independent economic development office for the Gibsons area, including the Town of Gibsons, Elphinstone and West Howe Sound, with a small board of directors and one economic development officer. Its approach is informed by the "economic gardening" principles espoused by Christian Gibbons of Littleton, Col., which focus on assisting local entrepreneurs and businesses as the main drivers of economic development.
According to a press release from the GCIA, research on the impact of large scale retail in small communities shows that: there are both positive and negative economic impacts on business and the community.
the rhetoric launched in the debate between the pro and anti Wal-Mart sides is often not supported by fact or informed by reason.
different constituencies in the community will have different concerns and positions.
"We believe that applications made to local government regarding land use should follow due process," said the statement from the GCIA. "We believe too, that GCIA's role is to focus on the business and economic aspects of issues, and to leave political debate to local government and special interest groups. Notwithstanding our commitment to the philosophy of free enterprise, we are concerned with the potential negative impact of large scale retail on local business. Our commitment, therefore, is to work with local business by identifying resources and programs to help local business adapt to new ways of competing in a potentially changing marketplace."