When Annie MacInnis became executive director of Calgary's Kensington Business Revitalization Zone, her job description was simple and succinct: "Promote and beautify the district."
Eight years later, the mandate is the same but it has become considerably more complex. Located just across the Bow River from Calgary's downtown core, Kensington is a historic neighbourhood with two new mixed-use projects going up, and another 13 developments at the proposal stage, says Ms. MacInnis, who represents the interests of Kensington's 280 businesses. Calgary's inner-city intensification plans could result in a 25-per-cent increase in Kensington's residential population over 10 years, she says.
"A large part of what I do nowadays is acting as a stakeholder on city committees and trying to steer the ship that is Kensington between what the community wants, what the developers want, and what the city intends for the area so that we get a good result that satisfies everybody, and yet still retains the integrity of a 100-year-old shopping district," explains Ms. MacInnis, who also chairs Calgary's Federation of Business Revitalization Zones, representing about 6,000 businesses in 10 business areas.
As a James Taylor song so aptly put it, "Main street isn't main street any more." Thanks to stiff competition from suburban shopping malls, big-box stores, and more recently, online shopping, Canada's high streets barely resemble the busy thoroughfares of yesteryear where sidewalks were lined with family footwear stores, dress shops and the like.
Yet, many Canadian main streets are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance fuelled by inner-city residential growth, according to a study conducted last year by the Canadian Urban Institute on behalf of the Canadian Issues Task Force of the International Downtown Association (IDA).
Dramatic condominium development in Toronto and Vancouver is leading the charge, according to The Value of Investing in Canadian Downtowns. The study is the first of its kind for Canada and measured the economic, social and cultural health of 10 downtowns: Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, London, Ont., Toronto, Ottawa, Fredericton and Halifax.
The study found that more people want to live in active neighbourhoods where they can be close to high-quality amenities and their workplaces. And while the study found that competition from suburban retailing is still a big challenge for downtowns, "promising trends for downtown retail are emerging… In the same way that retailers followed residents out to suburban areas in the postwar era, so too are retailers following people back into the core."
One of the more pressing challenges facing main streets is how to create a mix of retail, services and other businesses that will keep people coming back on a regular basis, says John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas. Toronto has 74 BIAs representing 35,000 businesses and property owners.
"There's been a significant shift to gastronomy – more coffee shops and restaurants – and many vacancies are being filled by professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and dentists." It's a mix, Mr. Kiru explains, that doesn't necessarily attract ongoing daily or weekly visitors.
While some districts, like Toronto's Chinatown or Liberty Village, are able to capitalize on their unique cultural or heritage aspects, others struggle to achieve the right mix, Mr. Kiru says, because the many independent landlords on any given main street are usually unable or unwilling to leave a space vacant in hopes of finding a perfect tenant to complement the overall neighbourhood business mix.
It's a similar situation in Halifax, says Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission (DHBC), and chair of the IDA's Canadian Issues Task Force. Putting together the right mix is a huge challenge, and "there are very few BIAs that know how, or are able, to do it well," he says.
These days, the DHBC is trying to create opportunities for niche businesses to set up shop in the downtown core. "How do we set the stage so that an entrepreneur with a great idea is able to get into the market here?" Mr. MacKinnon asks.
The answer is a combination of "trial and error and blind luck," he says. "It's tricky because when we look at the real success stories that we have downtown, they seemed to have come out of nowhere. For example, we have five or six stores that were started by graduates of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. They're creative people with great ideas and they wanted to start something downtown. But it's very difficult to bottle or predict that success."
It helps that some consumers are making a conscious decision to avoid big box and online shopping in favour of "buy local," Mr. MacKinnon says. "We're seeing more people who are willing to spend another couple of bucks knowing that their money is going to find its way back into their community."
Like downtown Halifax, Calgary's Kensington district is attracting people who crave a more personal shopping experience, Ms. MacInnis says. The area has achieved a nice mix of artisan shops, clothing retailers, restaurants and coffee shops, she says. "People come because of the face-to-face, the socializing, the personal service and the relaxed atmosphere. So it's a little different from a trip to the mall which I think is very purpose driven."
As far as the economic, social and cultural health of main streets is concerned, Ms. MacInnis likens a business improvement area like Kensington to the canary in the coal mine: "We see the broken sidewalk and we arrange to get it fixed; we see graffiti and arrange to have it removed; when we find a homeless person in difficulty, we arrange to get them social services. We have our finger in so many pies and we make small jewels from areas that weren't anything special before."
How Canada pioneered BIAs
In 1970, when new suburban malls were luring away customers from Toronto's traditional inner-city shopping streets, merchants in Bloor West Village banded together to create the world's first Business Improvement Area (BIA).
The idea caught on, and today there are close to 400 BIAs throughout Canada, according to the Canadian Urban Institute. BIAs have also sprung up in the United States, Europe and Africa.
BIA members include landlords and business owners and are typically managed by voluntary board members. A BIA is funded by its members through a special annual levy. The money is spent on beautifying and promoting the shopping district.
Every year, BIAs spend their budgets on anything from potted plants and jazz festivals to advertising and street repairs. Each of Toronto's 74 BIAs determines its own annual budget, which can range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, says John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas. And because every BIA member is required to pay an annual levy, any BIA project must benefit its entire membership, he adds.
How much do BIA members pay?
The annual levy varies from one BIA to another, but the formula is quite simple, Mr. Kiru says. Let's say you own a small shop. You would take the shop's assessed commercial value and divide that number by your BIA's total assessed value. If you take that resulting figure and multiply it by your BIA's 2013 budget, you'll have the levy that your business would pay this year. Mr. Kiru says he knows of a business owner in Toronto's Bloor West Village BIA who occupies about 1,100 square feet of main floor space and pays an annual levy of just over $800. This particular BIA has 400 members and a total annual budget of $350,000.
"Engagement by the members is very important. They need to get on their BIA's board of directors and make sure they're at the annual general meetings because that's where their board and the membership – not the city or any individual – decide the size of the annual budget. And that's going to determine the size of the levy each member will pay," Mr. Kiru says.