The foundering boat that is the Elmira BIA may just have righted itself at least somewhat this week with the installation of a new executive. The next step is to get more of the downtown business owners into the vessel. Far more difficult will be getting them to row in the same direction.
That I’m writing about it is a positive step for the moribund organization, however.
The BIA has been largely invisible since the days of the great Wal-Mart debate, an issue it mishandled but did eventually see some small payoff from in the form of a $90,000 cheque that arrived earlier this year. Another $10,000 will follow each year.
Another brief flurry followed about five years ago when the BIA toyed with both an expansion and closing up shop.
The expansion was indicative of the organization’s ills: It quickly became apparent Elmira businesses outside of the core had no interest in joining, and the BIA could offer no rationale for the move other than doubling its budget. Funds come from a special tax levied on businesses downtown, amounting to $30,000 a year.
The expansion proposal would have seen revenues jump to $65,000. No explanation was offered. No business plan put forward to justify the need for more money. No reason for the tax grab beyond the ability to do “more,” although there was precious little accountability for the money the BIA already received.
In the absence of the infusion of cash and members the proposal sought, the BIA also teetered on the brink of dissolution. Essentially struck to facilitate downtown reconstruction efforts some two decades ago – that project was long ago completed, with long-term debt retired in 2002 – it struggled for a raison d’être, especially after the flurry of activity swirling around the Wal-Mart-anchored King/86 power centre.
In pondering its own demise, the BIA found itself adrift, unable to provide a vision for the future of the Elmira core. If it had, the compulsory membership in the organization could have proven beneficial for downtown merchants. But such was not the case, and arguments were made in favour of the township directly taking on some of the functions served by the committee of council, perhaps moving downtown beautification into its own works department, leaving merchants free to organize whatever events they care to hold: a sidewalk sale does not require the resources of a municipal body.
Now, with some new blood on board, there’s a chance to give the BIA some direction. As chair Krista McBay of Home Hardware notes, however, that’s a long-term project. Getting more of the downtown businesses involved with the organization will require making it more relevant, more proactive. From there, the goal will be to develop a cohesive image and marketing strategy to promote downtown to residents of Elmira and surrounding communities.
Beyond the BIA’s own future, there’s also the bigger picture: how to make the core more attractive to residents.
To be sure, Elmira is not alone in this navel gazing – it’s a fixture in just about every community on the continent. And, as with every other municipality, downtown merchants have plenty of questions and few answers, none of which are likely to come from organizations such as BIAs, boards of trade, chambers of commerce and the their ilk.
In the Elmira case, moves such as standardizing longer hours of operation, Sunday shopping and attracting new retail shops have been debated for years. The words have been many, the actions few, however – the result of many small business owners acting without a common strategy. The BIA executive recommends a teamwork approach, starting with extending shopping times downtown, a sound move given how much we love our conveniences.
This is not a new struggle, as past executives have noted most of downtown is closed down by the time working Elmira residents return home, at just the moment they’re looking to do their shopping. Working in Kitchener and Waterloo, these residents can simply opt to do their shopping in the cities before heading home, knowing Elmira is closed.
Many of the business owners, on the other hand, will note it makes little economic sense to keep their doors open for longer periods of time, an act that would stretch their resources.
The Sunday shopping issue is even more divisive – if opening later on, say, a Wednesday night is the subject of much debate, Sunday would seem to be a complete non-starter.
Whether or not the BIA could help shape these decisions, the new reality dictates that they will have to be made.
With new subdivisions bringing people within walking distance of downtown, Elmira now has an opportunity to boost its attractiveness, giving those people someplace to walk to rather than climbing into their cars for the drive south every time. A revamped BIA has a window of opportunity.