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Council votes to establish new organization for downtown businesses

Businesses put 'skin in the game' to increase district's vibrancy, foot traffic
The highlighted area represents the area covered under the BIA. SCREENSHOT/City of St. Albert

St. Albert city council unanimously voted to establish a Business Improvement Area downtown, following nine months of organizing by two downtown business owners.

On Tuesday, council heard from Shannon Roche, the owner of Divine and Free Wellness Spa, located on St. Michael Street, and Michelle McDonald, the co-owner of Tryst Wine and Small Plates, located on Perron Street. The pair did the legwork to form the Business Improvement Area (BIA).

“Obviously, downtown has been on the docket for a long time,” Roche said. “There's a lot of things that have been tried and fallen flat, and the businesses really wanted an opportunity ... that we all felt would actually improve the downtown area.”

The downtown BIA will represent about 120 businesses, 35 of which signed the petition circulated by Roche and McDonald.

“(A BIA) gives us an opportunity to look right outside our front door ... and have a little bit of more of a say on what is going to directly affect us, and how we want to see things done, or built, or festivals, and just those opportunities to invest in our business community and to improve,” Roche said.

BIAs are corporations established through municipal bylaw, and provincially regulated in Alberta under the Municipal Government Act (MGA). There are roughly 35 BIAs in operation throughout the province, with most being located in Edmonton and Calgary.

Unlike a chamber of commerce, which also works to advocate for and improve business interests, BIAs are funded through a tax levy assessed to all businesses within the BIA's geographic area. Those funds can be used for things like marketing, visitor attraction, event coordinating, strategic plans, beautification, crime prevention, and more.

“BIAs work to address specific issues, fill support gaps, and create additional economic value within a geographically defined commercial area,” reads a report to council written by St. Albert economic development director Mike Erickson. “Municipalities also have certain legislative authority and requirements, which include ... approving a BIA's board of directors and annual budget, and collecting and transferring BIA taxes.”

“All businesses within a BIA become members and are required to pay a specific BIA tax that funds the programs, activities, and interests of the membership,” reads Erickson's report, which also says the proposed tax for the first year of the BIA's operation is $199 per business.

Roche said neither she nor McDonald heard from any downtown businesses that directly oppose the idea; however, there was some hesitation because of the financial commitment.

For McDonald, being part of a BIA is an effort to keep her restaurant going, and said if she didn't start seeing steady customers it's likely Tryst will be closed in a year's time.

“I opened my restaurant two weeks before COVID hit and it's been a really rough few years,” McDonald said. “I'm hoping the BIA will help revitalize downtown, because I've got maybe another year before I have to shut my doors.”

McDonald said a specific goal she'd like the BIA to have is to increase foot traffic downtown. 

“We need that foot traffic, so we need more businesses (and) more people downtown,” she said. “Right now, St. Albertans come downtown for a specific reason, but it's not really a destination right now and I think my goal would be to make it someplace that the residents of St. Albert would want to just come and hang out.”

“I'm a longtime St. Albert resident and it would be nice to see our downtown as a vital part of our community.”

Some councillors hesitant

Although she voted in favour of the BIA, Coun. Sheena Hughes told the Gazette she felt having a BIA downtown meant the city was “picking favourites,” given the city will need to add $24,000 to next year's budget to account for the staff time and work involved in administering the BIA's tax collection and transfer.

“The problem with this is that we are picking favourites," Hughes said. "Which area of the city deserves to have taxpayers support businesses and which ones (don't)? The cost to administer this just seems so heavy.”

Hughes also said she was also concerned just 29 per cent of the applicable businesses signed the petition in support of forming the BIA, which is four per cent more than the level of support required under the MGA.

Likewise, Coun. Shelley Biermanski said she likes the idea behind a BIA. However, she was also concerned about the level of support, the cost the BIA will add to the city's budget, and that establishing a BIA might signal city favouritism. 

“At the end of the day, we all want a beautiful and successful downtown and we want many areas like that in the city," Biermanski said. So, although the less help with other businesses might be the initial detriment in the beginning, those businesses will gain help later on down the road if this is successful.”

“I think we have to try it reluctantly at the cost of the government requirements, but I think that businesses can be really, really productive, and I'm anxious to see what they can do.”

Other members of council, like Mayor Cathy Heron and Coun. Ken MacKay, had no concerns.

“I'm not reluctant at all,” MacKay said during debate. “I'm 2,000 per cent behind this.”

“I just see this as an opportunity where the BIA basically can (accomplish downtown vibrancy) much more effectively and efficiently than the government.”

Heron said she thought having a BIA downtown will garner better results than previous city efforts to popularize the downtown area because businesses are now investing their own money into the effort.

“Now everyone in the downtown will have some sort of skin in the game, so that's why I think this is going to be successful,” Heron said. 

“I just want (downtown) to thrive, and I want it to be successful, and I want restaurants and shops to be open past 5 p.m., and I want street performers, and I want it all.”

The BIA's first budget is expected to be presented to council for approval sometime before May of next year.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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