Sarnia booster has ‘positively positive’ outlook

If the City of Sarnia had a cheerleading squad Michele Dionne would be its captain.

The mother of three, businesswoman and driving force behind SarniaRocks is a relentlessly upbeat person, and enthusiastic booster of the city.

In 2002 Dionne had an epiphany during an oversold Tragically Hip concert at the Bayfest Music Festival. Hearing out-of-towners badmouth Sarnia for the park’s overcrowding, she determined to prove them wrong and showcase what the city has to offer.

“I love Sarnia,” she says. “We’re a small town living in a big city.”

After learning web design Dionne launched SarniaRocks, an online entertainment guide of community events, reader reviews and local info. Today the self-described “positively positive” website runs to more than 100 pages.

Dionne, 45, has little patience for civic naysayers who do little but chirp from the sidelines.

“You can live here your whole life and miss so much,” she says. “If you moved somewhere else you’d appreciate what Sarnia has pretty quick,” she says.

Like affordability. Dionne notes many city attractions are free, from on-street parking to the Children’s Animal Farm, from swimming at Canatara to summer riverfront concerts and festivals. Even the gleaming new downtown art gallery has no entry fee.

“If you go to Toronto for a weekend it costs you a small fortune, even if you stay at your sister’s house. You could come here for a weekend and it wouldn’t cost you anything. How many cities can say that?” she asks.

The community has problems, of course, including a shrinking manufacturing base and relatively high unemployment. Dionne and her children Alec, 26, Rob 24 and Nicole, 19, and her long-time partner, John, have all felt the sting of layoffs.

“That’s stuff I can’t change. If we just focus on the good things we have, hopefully the rest will work itself out,” she says. “But we’re not leaving. We’re not packing up and going out West.”

Dionne attending Errol Road school and Northern Collegiate before waitressing six years at the now-defunct Georgian Shop.

“I have people come in and I can’t tell you their name, but I can tell you they are ‘poached and ham on white toast,’” she says with a laugh. “It’s that small town thing.”

She also ran a dining room and banquet facility at a local hotel, but the mother of three found herself repeatedly overlooked for promotion. So she “left all that” and earned a business diploma at Lambton College.

After jobs in the Chemical Valley she opened the Sarnia Rocks Plants and More Store at 102 Mitton Street South three years ago. The eclectic shop features incense, T-shirts, local crafts – even a kayak hanging from the ceiling.

Her latest project is promoting and booking bands for Liquid Johnny’s, a nightclub attempting to fill a live entertainment void created by the loss of Puck Around, Boomerangs and other venues.

“I smile and wave at people I don’t know when I drive by. I’m that girl,” she says. “And I feel safe doing that here, which I wouldn’t in a big city. That’s another thing I love about Sarnia.”

– George Mathewson

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