BIAs Mark 50 Years in Canada Amid COVID-19 Challenges

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On September 16, 1970, Bloor West Village BIA in Toronto became the first Business Improvement Area in the world.

And as the concept celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it’s becoming even more apparent during these challenging economic times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic just how important BIAs are to communities.

“BIAs are integral to advancing distinct, livable, vibrant and resilient business communities in Ontario and beyond, and arguably Ontario’s (Toronto’s) greatest export,” said Kay Matthews, Executive Director of Ontario Business Improvement Area Association. “We’re excited to see the growing spread of this world export. OBIAA strives to be pivotal in building capacity of our BIAs by providing a platform for sharing their wonderful ideas and best practices among our BIAs.

KAY MATTHEWS. PHOTO: LINKEDIN

“It’s a very different thinking than it was when it was set up 50 years ago. When we did a return on investment of BIAs a couple of years ago, what we learned was the one thing that most BIAs feel that they’re doing is community development. So it’s beyond the idea of just creating a shopping area. It’s creating a community area. One where, as a resident, it’s a part of your fabric of your day to day. We often talk about our BIAs being the heart of a community. We use the word heart really specifically because it stands for heritage, economy, arts, revitalization, tourism. We’re broader than we were originally anticipated to be.

“And we are the feet on the street. When we closed down on March 17 and became ghost towns it was like a proxy for the whole economy. It was a proxy for the whole community disappearing and going within.”

Today, there are more than 300 BIAs in Ontario and about 500 across Canada. There are 84 BIAs in Toronto, 19 in Ottawa, 13 in Hamilton. Some are also very specific to cultures such as Chinatown. There’s a wide variety and a broad range of what they do.

BIAs across the country, and around the world, are being invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organizations.

The BIAs are becoming increasingly more important as communities across the country face tough economic times due to the pandemic.

“I think they’re going to be pivotal in the recovery,” said Matthews.

Kensington Night Market

Annie MacInnis, Executive Director of the Kensington Business Revitalization Zone in Calgary, said that at a very basic level the job of a BIA is to create or support a business district where community and businesses thrive.

Part of that includes beautifying an area and ensuring that it is safe.

“Walkability, pedestrian comfort, those are all things that we consider,” said MacInnis. “And we also do marketing and promotion of the area. Most BIAs organize events of one kind or another.”

In Calgary, it’s been particularly tough for local businesses these days. Not only have they struggled due to the pandemic but the economy has been challenged for the past six years as a result of oil prices which collapsed at the end of 2014.

“BIAs are absolutely critical particularly here in Calgary. We’re five years into a downturn. We already had businesses close to the edge prior to COVID and so the presence of a BIA is going to be ever so important as we try to help businesses survive through this next year or so,” said MacInnis. “But we do know from international downtown association data is that businesses that are in a BIA are more likely to survive any kind of a disaster – whether that’s a physical disaster like a hurricane or a flood or whether it’s an economic downturn or whether it’s a current situation like COVID.

ANNIE MACINNIS. PHOTO: TWITTER

“They also recover quicker in a BIA. One of the things we look at when we think of BIAs is that it’s going to be really important for us to do the job that we do and do it even better because we not only have a responsibility to support our businesses who are still struggling to survive but we need to do what we can also to attract those green shoots – those new entrepreneurs – and we also need to look at (attracting) more to come and fill those spaces. At a very basic level, our job is to try to support the business district as a whole.”

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