Building business

[attach]825[/attach]Fairy lights, trees and flower pots: in a nutshell, that’s the history of the Bloor West Village Business Improvement Area.

If that seems like a backhanded way of stating the accomplishments of North America first BIA, consider this: the BIA has become a model for business associations not just in the city but worldwide.

As the BIA prepares for its 40th anniversary in 2010, the fairy lights twinkling in the trees remain a poignant symbol of its struggles — and stellar successes — over the last four decades.

After the subway was completed in 1967 there was no feet on the pavement, say several long-standing retailers on the Bloor St. West strip between the South Kingsway and Glendonwynne Rd. Business suffered, as did the look of the sidewalk and storefronts.

To bring the shoppers back it was decided to beautify the streetscape, which was one of the key reasons behind the forming of the association in 1970.

“The street was a sorry looking mess,” says Gary Ward, who had just taken over his father’s business, Cecil Ward & Sons, a few years before the BIA formed. “We lost a lot of street traffic.”

Though Ward wasn’t part of the original band of business owners from the Bloor and Jane Businessmen’s Association who conceived of the BIA — he credits the late Neil McLellan of McLellan Jewellers as being the driving force behind its inception — he served on its board for 20 years.

Ward was one of several key businessmen including McLellan who drove to Ottawa in 1968 to take a look at the Sparks Street Mall. Known for its attractive trees and flowers, the outdoor shopping mall was the inspiration behind the beautification strategy and the forming of the BIA.

Once approved by the city and the provincial government, the newly formed Bloor West Village BIA set out to improve the streetscape by installing flower boxes and benches and planting trees which were dressed with lights.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Convincing business owners of the value of paying levies in the form of additional taxes to subsidize revitalization projects was a tough sell, Ward says.

“It struggled,” he says of the first few years. “We had a lot of negativity.”

John Rukavina, an original board member and owner of Marlborough’s for 31 years, says the idea of a BIA and how it worked was completely new at the time.

“No one else taxed themselves,” he says. “It was controversial.”

Not seeing an immediate payoff for money invested, many business owners wanted to disband the BIA. A vote was taken and it survived, and then continued to evolve.

Big events like the annual sidewalk sale in the summer started fairly early on in the BIA’s history and drew people from all over the city, says Rukavina, who headed up the advertising and promotions for the BIA for 15 years.

He says he always believed in the value of BIA.

“It worked.”

[attach]826[/attach]Alex Ling, owner of Ling’s Importers and past-president and founder of the Toronto Association for Business Improvement Areas, opened his business in 1971 and says he was recruited by the Bloor West Village BIA quickly.

“I rolled up my sleeves right away and went to work.”

He continued to serve on the board as chair for 24 years.

There were challenges at the time with business owners, he says, some of which had to do with the flowerpots that adorned only the north side of the street.

As the only business owner on the south side of the street on the board, Ling says he was asked to distribute the boxes more evenly on both sides of the street.

He remembers going out one night with a contractor and moving some of the boxes to the south side of the street.

The next day he got an earful from irate business owners who wanted the boxes back in front of their stores.

“My phone was ringing off the hook.”

On the flipside, some business owners didn’t want the flower boxes in front of their stores.

Ling recalls one gentleman who complained and said he also didn’t want the street festival to happen due to noise.

Three years later that same business owner was helping to set up and tear down the event, Ling says. And the flowerpots stayed.

One of the BIA’s biggest successes, Ling says, is its ability to get along with the area residents and listen to them even when they’re complaining about something.

“It’s nothing but communication,” he says.

BIA member Paula McInerney agrees.

“A lot of the BIAs don’t work with residents the way we do,” says McInerney, who’s going on her sixth year as BIA chair.

She joined the BIA’s ranks as soon as she bought McLellan Jewellers in 1986. Before that she had worked in her family’s jewellery business in a strip mall in Mississauga.

“I had never been to an area where it was so vibrant,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be involved.”

After sitting on the advertising committee and eventually becoming its head, McInerney was voted in as BIA chair in 2003. She says she’ll stay in the role until they vote her out or she’s in the grave across the street.

Her mantra — “It’s not about me, it’s about we” — seems to epitomize the attitude the businesses have towards their relationship with the locals.

That personal relationship that business owners have with customers simply doesn’t exist in bigger stores, she says.

It’s that loyalty to the local businesses that’s helped the BIA flourish even during tough times, says Rukavina, who adds that residents continued to shop in the area even during the recessions of the 1980s and ’90s.

“Somehow our reputation saved us.”

Today, there are other challenges to the Bloor West business strip.

Rents have gone up so astronomically that many of the smaller independents, people say, simply can’t afford the rents.

As more and more chain stores move into the area, some have worried about the independent nature of the shopping strip being eroded. But the attitude towards this change doesn’t seem to be as guarded as it once was.

“It’s better to have the big boys in the village than not in the village,” says McInerney, as the chains tend to bookend the street bringing people in to the area.

Still it’s no secret that many of the long-time business owners are gone, either retired, deceased or now landlords instead of shop owners. The old guard, so to speak, of independent business movers and shakers is on the wane. Recruiting the next generation to the ranks of the BIA could very well be the next big challenge.

“We need one or two key people to take over,” says Gary Ward. “We’ve lost a lot of good people.”

McInerney says a younger group of business owners is starting to move into the area, but that they are focused on building their business. She says she thinks they’ll get involved in the BIA once they establish themselves.

“We need new blood, new ideas constantly,” she says.

[attach]827[/attach]Back on the street, the lights continue to sparkle in the trees, except now they’re LED lights that are solar-powered, another Bloor West Village BIA initiative that has saved the association about $10–15,000 a year in hydro bills, guesses Ling.

The original flowerpots are also on their way out to make more room for shoppers on the sidewalk. New pots will soon hang from the gas lamps along the street, which are in the process of being converted to solar power as well.

And by the time TABIA holds the Bloor West Village BIA’s 40th anniversary bash in April 2010 in the parking lot behind McLellan’s Jewellers, those LED lights in the trees — which some say are too dim — could be shining a little brighter. The BIA is considering plans to modify the lighting to make it illuminate more, something that could save them even more money.

“It’s going to happen,” says Ling. The hope is that the lights will be up and running for the big celebration.

Given the BIA’s track record with all things related to fairy lights, flowers and trees, it seems likely that the streets of Bloor West Village will be bathed in light sooner than later.