Incoming mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith bullish on Sidney’s future

Cliff McNeil-Smith became mayor of Sidney in a similar fashion to the way he came to own Tanner’s Books. It started with love, progressed to expertise and then he took charge.

A first love for the 60-year-old McNeil-Smith was books, fostered early with family trips to the library in North York, Ont., where he spent his first 20-odd years.

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Books, however, were not his first career choice, simply a first love. McNeil-Smith’s first foray into post-secondary education and work was in physical fitness, working with companies to assist their employees. But books eventually snagged him back.

After migrating west to Alberta, he worked in a W.H. Smith book store in Lethbridge before moving on to Chapters in Calgary, where he became district manager.

But after eight years, he realized he preferred smaller, more community-focused bookstores and decided to open his own. Lucky for him, he was familiar with Tanner’s Books in Sidney and while scanning the internet, he saw a little notice looking for interested buyers.

“I picked up the phone, two weeks later I came out and started talking and three months later I was the proud new owner of Tanner’s,” said McNeil-Smith.

That was in 2001, but it wasn’t his first visit to Sidney. He and his wife, Daphne, spent a year there in 1990 before leaving for Alberta and work. But McNeil-Smith and his wife never forgot the town or Tanner’s.

Since buying Tanner’s and moving back to Sidney, the connections between the McNeil-Smith family and the town have grown. His daughter attended Parkland Secondary School and is now at university in Ontario.

His step-by-step work to becoming mayor began within one year of taking ownership of Tanner’s.

In 2002, McNeil-Smith was invited to sit as a director on the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. Also that year, he became a director of the Sidney Business Association. In 2004 he became its president.

In subsequent years, he joined the boards of seven local non-profits. It was all part of an introduction to the ways of the community.

McNeil-Smith also said that involvement took him many times to the offices of the municipality, looking for support on behalf of various ideas and initiatives. In 2009, he was elected as a municipal councillor for Sidney. But it came as a shock to realize how challenging local government can be.

“I learned very quickly that municipal budgeting and municipal finances are much more complicated than business,” he said. “Local government has such an impact on people’s daily lives and the money is going into so many different areas.”

“Most people think it’s just sidewalks and roads, that sort of thing,” said McNeil-Smith.

Perhaps even more significant for McNeil-Smith was the formation in 2012 of the Sidney Business Improvement Area, where he was a founding director and first president.

Sidney businesses were feeling pinched. The 2008 recession was still lingering, the tourism industry appeared stagnant, and sales and customers seemed to be dropping all over.

So the Sidney Business Improvement Area was formed to promote and foster downtown Sidney and its 375 separate businesses. Unlike the Chamber of Commerce, which represents the entire Saanich Peninsula, it would concentrate on Sidney.

The idea of a business improvement area took some heavy lobbying. Some businesses balked at the notion of a special levy to fund the group. Approval from Sidney council was necessary.

McNeil-Smith spearheaded the campaign to make it happen, citing the need for Sidney to bring more “footsteps into the community” in the face of competition from shopping centres and districts outside the community.

In the end, council agreed, and business opposition never rose to more than one-third.

McNeil-Smith remains bullish about Sidney’s future. It has three distinct economic zones, all of which boast opportunity:

• the downtown shopping district, mostly along Beacon Avenue;

• the waterfront with its marinas, boat-building businesses and other services;

• the industrial and technology zone near the Victoria International Airport.

McNeil-Smith said the tourism sector has received a good boost with the opening in 2009 of the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea aquarium.

Also, Sidney remains a transportation hub on the highway to B.C. Ferries at Swartz Bay and the Washington State Ferries to Anacortes. It’s also a service and retail centre serving the Saanich Peninsula and beyond.

Housing for the employees who work in Sidney’s businesses is a challenge that will test the municipal mettle of all the communities on the Saanich Peninsula.

But McNeil-Smith said there is room for co-operation with neigbbouring municipalities such as North Saanich. Also, Sidney’s official community plan has not been examined for 10 years, so there could be land where housing can be built.

“There’s been a lot of rapid change and rapid development over the past few years,” said McNeil-Smith. “So it’s time to re-engage the community and renew our vision for the entire community.”

Susan Simosko, a Sidney businesswoman and the current president of the Sidney Business Improvement Area Society, said she believes the community has elected a fine mayor.

“Cliff is always looking for ways to make Sidney better,” said Simosko. “When something has to be done, he is just laser-focused.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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