Business Improvement Areas to Play Important Role in Growth and Success of Canada’s Main Streets [Feature/Interviews]

When it comes to ensuring the economic and social wellbeing of communities in every province and territory across the country, the health and success of small businesses is crucial. In fact, the prosperity of small businesses isn’t just a critical element lending to the vitality and verve of neighbourhoods, they are the lifeblood of the areas they serve. It goes without saying that impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic have been devastating on their operations, limiting their ability to open their storefronts to customers and their capacity to progress and grow. As a result, it’s been recognized by many that small businesses currently require help and support in order to get through this extremely difficult period in retail history. Fortunately for some Canadian communities, there are Business Improvement Areas (BIA) that are doing everything they can to provide that much-needed help and support. However, according to Annie MacInnis, Executive Director of the Kensington Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ) in Calgary, the need for all BIAs to do so going forward is paramount.

“The role of BIAs is more critical now than ever before,” she asserts. “They were created to help communities and neighbourhoods deal with crisis. In fact, the first BIA in the world in Toronto’s Bloor West was created in order to deal with all of the issues that came with the introduction of the subway through the area. And there are so many more similar examples that can be pointed out around the world where organizations were formed in order to assist struggling businesses, protect merchants and business owners from violence and crime or to help revitalize a downtrodden community. They are the organizations that are best equipped to help businesses in communities adapt and persevere through adversity by working as a collective to address their issues and overcome their challenges. And, in light of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on small businesses in communities across the country, their efforts are going to be so important in ensuring the survival of Main Streets everywhere.”

Built for crisis

MacInnis goes on to explain that the Kensington BRZ that she manages was also formed in the wake of disruption to the area. Nestled between Sunnyside and Hillhurst in the heart of Calgary, the BRZ was organized in 1985 as a means to help support local merchants navigate the turbulence and interruptions to business that resulted from the construction of the Calgary Light-Rail Transit line through the area. By way of initiatives and advocacy on behalf of merchants, the BRZ enabled local business owners to maintain strength and continuity and continued foot traffic to the neighbourhood amid the adversity. The role that the BRZ served during its inception was pivotal in safeguarding the financial health of the area’s businesses. And it’s a purpose that it continues to fulfill today, benefitting everyone in the district.

“A healthy city is a city that evolves and grows,” says MacInnis. “And the communities and neighbourhoods within those cities are also going to go through evolution and change. It’s up to the BIAs in these communities to help them manage that growth and change, representing the collective business voice of the area. It requires strong collaboration with community associations and with the municipality to understand potential benefits of the many changes that might occur and inform business owners of them. As communities grow, so do the opportunities available to them. It can help increase the numbers of local shoppers who can be encouraged to spend their money in the community at the cool local shops, restaurants and bars. Having a lot of people who live and shop locally is the difference between a business district thriving and a business district barely surviving.”

Image: Kensington Calgary Dedication and hard work

Today, the Kensington BRZ serves more than 270 member businesses. And, with the recent addition of new retail and office space as well as mixed-use developments, membership continues to grow. MacInnis’ work in leading the BRZ for the better part of the past 20 years has been instrumental in the success of its members. She’s also the Chair of the umbrella organization of Calgary BRZs and one of the founding members of the country’s first national organization — the Canadian chapter of the International Downtown Association. It allows her to be involved in advocacy at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. In fact, MacInnis is so active and passionate about the health and wellbeing of Canadian small businesses that when the City of Calgary developed the Business Sector Support Task Force at the onset of the pandemic, she was appointed as one of the representatives. As a result of regular meetings with the City, the Calgary Council made the decision to pay the BIA levy for more than 6,000 small businesses within 15 BIAs throughout the city. It’s an initiative that received international recognition, and one that MacInnis says is reflective of the dedication and hard work put in by everyone involved on the Task Force.

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“This resulted in money in the pockets of business owners,” she exclaims. “And it was made possible because of our creativity, engagement and commitment to helping as many businesses as possible. Calgary was four years into a severe economic downturn when the COVID-19 crisis began and businesses in every district throughout the city were struggling. As a result, in order to deal with the downturn, a council had already been set up to focus on ways to help local businesses. So, when the pandemic hit, we were able to hit the ground running. But it seems that in response to its impact, everyone involved in efforts to help support merchants doubled down, going above and beyond to ensure the health and survival of their local business communities.”

Ensuring strong engagement

Beyond the advocacy efforts with government on behalf of small business owners, MacInnis stresses that one of the most important things that a BIA can do for its members during a time as difficult as the past 18 months is to maintain strong engagement with them. To do this for her own members, she made sure to speak personally with every one of Kensington’s business owners to understand their individual needs. In addition, she increased the number of newsletters that she distributes in a year from 10 to 45, advising members of provincial regulations, financial aid information and mental health resources, among other useful content. However, it was the budgetary decision that she made when the pandemic’s impacts began that has yielded perhaps the biggest reward for members.

“When we were determining our budget in Fall 2020, although a lot of BIAs were making the decision to lower fees to their members out of respect for their businesses, we were a bit of an outlier and decided not to lower our fees,” she explains. “When you lower your fees, you have to lower your budget. We figured that a crisis like COVID is what our organization was built for, and we can do so much more with that money. It allowed us to put on a campaign earlier this year with the goal of putting money back into our small businesses and to encourage people that our business district was a safe place to come back to. In order to do that, we set up live entertainment in our public plaza every Saturday for six months where visitors could come and socially distance and enjoy live entertainment. The events helped support local artists. And, as part of the event series, we also supported a different local charity organization each month, helping to raise awareness of their services. It was a great success and helped to promote Kensington as a safe, fun and vibrant place to enjoy a Saturday afternoon.”

Image: Kensington Calgary Love conquers all

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As part of the six-week entertainment series, MacInnis also initiated a contest that visitors to the area can enter every week for six months. To do so, people are encouraged to write a ‘love letter’ to Kensington, explaining their admiration for the community, and submit it in person into a mailbox located in the plaza. Each week, the mailbox is emptied and a letter is chosen as the winner, whose writer receives $1,000 in gift cards to local shops in town. To fund the project, the Kensington BRZ used $40,000 of its budget, purchasing $300 in gift cards from every business in the community. And, because many of the gift cards are $25 denominations, each winner’s prize consists of 30 to 35 gift cards to individual merchants, ensuring traffic, repeat visits, new customers and hopefully more spend above the value of the gift cards. 

In addition, as part of the campaign that MacInnis calls Kensington’s ‘Love’ campaign, the BRZ and its local business members also hosted three massive community fire pits with community seating in the deep cold of February. It lit up the community with bright colourful lights. And it introduced a big heart bench in the centre of the district, reflective of the campaign and Kensington as a safe and welcoming community. Each of these initiatives on their own reaped benefits for local business owners and the Kensington community. However, as part of a collective, the success that’s been generated to date has been incredible, evidenced by the health of the Kensington business district.

“When the pandemic hit, I set a goal to save more businesses than I’d lose during this time,” she admits. “In the four years of economic downturn, prior to the pandemic, I had lost 16 businesses. At the start of COVID, when there were a number of problems between landlords and their tenants, I lost another 14 businesses. Since then, 17 businesses have opened in Kensington, 2 took the time to rebrand, 6 have expanded or moved to a larger location in the area and 6 are opening soon. In the end, the health of small businesses is critical to the health of the municipal economy, provincial economy and federal economy. I understood how important it was to protect Canada’s entrepreneurs from the devastating impacts of the pandemic and thereby protect the economic wellbeing of the country.”

Preparing for a ‘new normal’

Response to MacInnis’ initiatives has been tremendous to date. And, looking ahead, she has a number of plans to further improve Kensington, making it more welcoming than it already is, including the enhancement of the community’s plaza with better lighting, the inclusion of power sources and access to water. She’s also in the process of working with local businesses to realize new opportunities that might arise from a ‘new normal’, including the chance to reimagine their stores and the way they do things and to consider creative partnerships with other businesses that might involve a type of lease-sharing agreement. All of her efforts are aimed at helping to create more useful spaces within the district and to help support merchants in understanding the changed landscape and to embrace a new way of thinking. In doing so, she believes that there are bright days ahead.

“Things have undoubtedly changed over the course of the past 18 months. And it’s up to small business owners, with the help and support of their local BIAs, to think creatively and connect with their customers on another level. People are really starting to embrace the shop local mentality and are understanding more clearly how important small businesses are to the health of their communities. They’re seeing now more than ever that their local small business owner is also their neighbour and their friend. We’ve experienced quite a bit of support for our merchants throughout the pandemic. And, it’s support that I only anticipate strengthening as we continue moving forward.”

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