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Opinion: With support from BIAs, Calgary’s trendy streets will survive

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During this pandemic, we were all reminded of the need, value, and reward to work for the common good of our community. In the past few months, working for the good of all to protect our health and our economy has been the two critical tasks for all levels of government and all citizens.

The Calgary 15 Business Improvement Areas have been a key partner in a joint federal, state and local effort to save more businesses than we are losing. BIAs are not as well known as other business associations such as Chambers of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. However, BIAs play an important role in the success of the outdoor shopping districts you know and love on Main Street.

In September it will be 50 years since the first BIA. This world’s first BIA was launched in Toronto on September 16, 1970 when the Bloor Village West companies asked the city council to create an organization to help them assess the impact of subways and suburbs on small inner-city highways mitigate. This model of helping in tough business districts is so successful that there are now 500 BIAs in Canada and many more in countries as diverse as Ireland, South Africa, the UK and Israel.

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The ongoing economic downturn in Calgary has shown that we as organizations are particularly well placed to help our members in crisis situations. BIAs are the canaries in the mines when it comes to business. We are the eyes of the street for all levels of government.

A company within a BIA has a better chance of survival whether the crisis is a natural disaster affecting a city physically, a catastrophic economic downturn, or a pandemic. Data (collected by the International Downtown Association) shows this and shows that companies are recovering faster than companies without a BIA supporting them.

BIAs are easy to identify. They organize free street festivals for Calgarians. In BIAs, where they spend their first dates and holidays, tourists visit weekend brunch and unique shopping opportunities. They are the characteristic, walkable, charming main streets where you want to live and spend time.

There are 15 BIAs in Calgary. Some have been around for decades. These include Kensington, Inglewood, 17th Avenue SW, Bowness, 4th Street, Marda Loop, Downtown Association, 17th Avenue SE (International Avenue), and Victoria Park. Recently established BIAs include Chinatown, Montgomery, Thorncliffe-Greenview, Crescent Heights, Bridgeland and the Beltline.

During this pandemic, the Calgary BIAs and their executives worked tirelessly for not just their member firms and other BIAs, but for all businesses. We have worked with the International Downtown Association Canada chapter writing letters to the federal government advocating rental assistance, CERB, wage subsidies, and other small business support. We have worked with BIAs in Alberta writing letters to the federal and provincial governments advocating rent relief, wage subsidies, and reopening grants. We worked with the Calgary Business Sector Support Task Force, which is committed to local shop campaigns, pop-up patios, and reopening clarity. We met weekly to find out how best to help our members sift through the vortex of information, distill the essence so our companies can access help, and then address the societal changes they are facing To help reopening and to stand up for them vigorously and passionately every day on behalf of all companies and their employees.

We hear more than ever the importance of local shopping and supporting your favorite stores when many people are concerned about the financial well-being of their own families. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the BIA, let us also recognize the value that BIA organizations place on the vitality and economic well-being of our cities.

Annie MacInnis is the executive director of the Kensington Business Improvement Area.

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