To BIA or not to BIA?

Why some shops say no to city funded business improvement areas

A popular story about the ingenuity of Toronto’s entrepreneurs goes something like this: Noticing that much of the pedestrian traffic they had previously enjoyed was going underground by way of the newly created Bloor-Danforth subway line, a group of shopkeepers in the Bloor West Village area decided to band together to make sure that clients didn’t forget about them. Pooling their resources, they beautified the street and collectively marketed the area. So was born the first Business Improvement Area.

That was 40 years ago. Since then, the concept has taken off and there are now some 70 BIAs in Toronto. Some of the city’s most distinctive BIAs, including Bloor-Yorkville, Greektown on the Danforth and the Beach, work to beautify their streetscapes and host popular summer events to draw in shoppers.

However, not all areas of the city are onboard when it comes to the BIA program. Two notable hold-outs are Bayview Avenue just below Eglinton Avenue, and Avenue Road, from Lawrence Avenue to Hwy 401. These areas, each with their own distinct flavour, are the type of neighbourhoods one might associate with a BIA, despite the fact neither has ever had one.

Although not for lack of trying.

“We tried to get it going a few years ago,” says Grant Allardyce, co-owner of The Source Menswear on Bayview. “It’s just ridiculous for a street like this to have gone this long without a BIA,” he says, pointing to the need for street beautification to draw in sagging pedestrian traffic, as well as for a stronger collective voice to lobby the municipality on issues like excessive ticketing.

“There’s been some difficulty with some stores that really didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” says Allardyce.

If the BIA concept leaves some business owners cold, it likely has to do with the means by which dues are collected; an extra tax passed on to businesses by property owners. Assessed based on each store’s size, some businesses pay more than others. A typical levy is around $300 a year.

According to the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, some businesses feel any extra tax is too much. What’s worse some businesses argue, is that there’s no opt-out and nce a BIA is established (minimum one third opposition is required to stop it), all businesses are bound to pay in, whether they like the idea or not.

“Once you’re in the capture area, you get taxed,” says Richard Byford, co-owner of Bonnie Byford Real Estate on Bayview Avenue.
“The last thing most businesses need is more tax.”

Byford says the work of a BIA is better undertaken by independent groups, such as the now-disbanded business association that used to organize street events in the area.

“(The BIA) is another level of city bureaucracy,” says Byford. “If individual store owners look after their stores, business will come.
There’s no reason to have somebody pay a third party to come look after our stores,” he says, noting he and his wife put flower pots and Christmas decorations outside their own store every year.

Other business owners appreciate that logic too.

Over on Avenue, florist Sarah Bayat says she already spends hundreds of dollars on street front gardening every year. Although she admits the matching dollars provided through the BIA program by the city for projects such as green roofs and storefront beautification are attractive, she’s not sure it adds up.

“In this neighbourhood some of the businesses will collectively do things on their own. There’s been the odd promotional shopping night,” she says. “A lot of people are very active about having pots and flowers out here already.”

Improving business by the numbers:

• Toronto’s first BIA, Bloor West
Village, was established in 1970.

• There are currently 70 BIAs across Toronto.

• BIAs vary in size, they can contain less than 50 businesses or over 2,000.

• Every business member is charged a levy share of the annual budget, based on that member’s share of the BIAs total commercial realty assessment. A typical levy is around $300 a year.

• BIAs spend the money on streetscape improvements, decorative lighting, planting, banner and community festivals. Every August, the Greektown on the Danforth BIA runs one of the city’s biggest street festivals, The Taste of the Danforth.

• The BIA concept originated in Toronto but it’s spread around the globe. Currently there are over 230 in Ontario, and 300 throughout Canada. BIAs can also be found in the United States, Great Britain and South Africa.

About this article:

By: Joshua Freeman
Posted: Mar 15 2010 12:35 pm
Filed in: Business
Edition: Toronto