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Celebrating 40 Years of BIAs

By Sara Bedal |

Did you know that Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) are a made-in-Canada innovation? That's right, and this year Toronto's Bloor West Village BIA - the first-ever BIA - is celebrating 40 years of serving the local business community and acting as a model for BIAs worldwide.

Bloor West Village dubs itself "a small village in a big city" and it's easy to spend time exploring its main street. Bakeries, cafés and diverse shops line the bustling one-kilometre stretch, pretty with its flickering street lamps, wooden benches and flower planters.

The Village hasn't always been such a vibrant place and was once home to several gas stations and used car lots. In the 1960s, suburban malls and a new subway line lured thousands of shoppers away from the storefronts. It was a shaky time for businesses--some closed, others moved away.

The local economic climate was so glum, in fact, that a group of frustrated businesspeople convinced the government to pass legislation that would force all businesses in the designated area to pay a special levy. The funds --$47,500 in the first year--were ploughed into cosmetic enhancements, such as the sidewalk planters and strings of lights for the trees. In time, the beautification program and area promotions were enough to draw shoppers back to the neighbourhood.

Birth of the first BIA

The Bloor West Village BIA was created on May 14, 1970. BIAs are sometimes called "business improvement districts" or "business revitalization zones" but they're all essentially the same thing: a non-profit association of business owners in a designated area who join forces to improve and promote the area as an appealing place to visit, shop and carry on business.

Each BIA board of management develops an annual budget. In Ontario, for instance, budgets are approved by a municipal council and a special levy is added to the property tax of each business owner in the designated area. And there's no opting out: The underlying premise of a BIA is that all members reap its benefits so all must pay their fair share.

Once levies are collected, BIAs spend the funds on marketing and promotion as well as neighbourhood improvements and beautification, such as the removal of graffiti, street cleaning and seasonal decorating. They also frequently team up with community partners to hold special events such as street fairs, parades and arts and crafts exhibitions. The Toronto Ukrainian Festival was recently held in Bloor West Village, for example.

Pros and cons of BIAs

There are critics who contend that BIAs are undemocratic, concentrate power in the hands of a few and discourage smaller businesses from setting up shop when rental values begin to increase.

Their levies can be controversial, too. After all, not all types of businesses stand to benefit from BIA initiatives to the same degree as others.

But the numbers speak for themselves. After Bloor West Village's impressive turnaround, other neighbourhoods adopted the "self-help" idea. There are now 71 BIAs in Toronto and more than 400 in Canada (according to an estimate by Wikipedia). And the self-help idea has gone global, with BIAs in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and Japan.

For Alex Ling, who relocated his gift store to Bloor West from downtown Toronto, belonging to a BIA is a no-brainer. Ling is past chairman of the Bloor West Village BIA and was president of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) for 19 years. The Bloor West BIA joined forces with other Toronto BIAs and successfully lobbied for group discounts on credit card merchant fees and insurance rebates.

These perqs, as well as the themed events and beautification initiatives that attract shoppers to the Village, make the BIA all worthwhile to Ling. "Sure, you have to pay your levies," he says, "but you have all the benefits."

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