Column: City Hall opens wallet, communication lines with BIAs

By Greg Wigmore

Persistent lobbying has finally succeeded in prodding the city to strengthen its working relationship with business improvement area groups.

City council recently approved up to $150,000 in funding to improve its contact with the BIAs, the member-funded groups charged with representing, promoting and improving the commercial districts they represent.

The new funding will streamline communication between the BIAs and city hall, making it easier for businesses “to navigate the labyrinth of city bureaucracy,” as the head of one BIA remarked.

The plan will also help the BIAs advertise themselves to tourists, developers, and new businesses, by offering marketing research grants of up to $10,000 for each group, and by helping them raise their profiles on the Internet and through pamphlets detailing the various commercial districts.

Over the next few years, the city also hopes to offer small businesses professional advice and ideas on design and façade improvement.

There are 11 BIAs throughout the city, including the Bank Street Promenade, Preston Street and Sparks Street Mall areas.

More groups are likely to form as businesses in other parts of the city come to recognize the potential benefits a formal business community can provide.

These benefits include everything from networking opportunities with neighbouring business people to the financial spinoffs that result from being located in a well-known commercial district.

BIAs also provide individual firms and merchants with a stronger, unified voice on matters of importance, particularly when lobbying local government officials.

Though the new partnership program falls short of what his BIA is ultimately hoping for, it is a good start, says Gerry LePage, executive director of the Bank Street Promenade.

The former City of Ottawa used to allocate full-time employees to co-ordinate programs with the BIAs.

But the program was scaled back because of large budget cuts in the 1990s.

Since then, businesses have been forced to correspond with multiple contacts at different departments when dealing with city hall.

LePage says it’s essential the city appoint staff to serve exclusively as a conduit between itself and the BIA.

These employees would ideally administer city programs and serve as the small business community’s advocates and first point of contact at city hall.

Local taxpayers should also expect a favourable return on the city’s investment in the new program.

Altogether, the BIAs represent about 2,600 businesses, which provide the city with about $75 million in tax revenues annually.

Common sense alone suggests that by helping BIAs make Ottawa’s commercial districts more attractive to small-business entrepreneurs and developers, the city can both expand its property tax base and foster local prosperity.