Part of the Secret that Makes Toronto Work
Walk along most popular pedestrian areas of Toronto – St. Lawrence Market, Yonge-Dundas Square, Bloor West Village, Queen Street or Bloor-Yorkville to name just a few – and you understand what makes Toronto so popular.
What you may not know is that these areas are part of a partnership between area businesses and Toronto City Council called Business Improvement Areas, or BIAs.
A BIA is a self-funded association of commercial property owners and business tenants created to improve the local business environment.
When you walk along sidewalks with flowers or attend many of the public events and festivals throughout the city, you benefit from the efforts of local BIAs.
It all began with Bloor West Village. During the late 1960s interest in the area was on the decline. The Bloor-Danforth subway line had been completed and people who used to travel on surface via streetcar now relied on the subway. There was also the rise of shopping malls that provided parking and year-round climate control. Shoppers abandoned their traditional shopping areas and Bloor West Village suffered. Merchants closed and many moved to malls.
Remaining merchants responded by attempting to form business associations. Businessmen from the Bloor West area convinced the City and Province to enact legislation compelling businesses within a designated area to pay a levy for revitalizing their business area through promotional activities and physical improvements.
Bloor-West Village was designated the first BIA in 1970. Its 275 businesses along a 1 km strip voted themselves a budget of $47,500. The money was spent on physical improvements. An area with abandoned lots and struggling businesses became a vibrant and safe area to live, work and shop.
Downtown Yonge St. is another area rejuvenated partially due to the creation of a BIA. In the early 1970s the area was frequented by drug dealers, prostitutes and vendors dealing with stolen goods. Local businesses played an important role in rejuvenating the downtown area, creating the Downtown Yonge BIA and sponsoring many of the events that draw people to the area.
Toronto now has 81 Business Improvement Areas representing more than 35,000 businesses. Each BIA is responsible for generating funds for making an area clean, enticing and vibrant. BIAs fund street and sidewalk beautification, street festivals, graffiti-removal campaigns and crime prevention strategies. They are a dynamic and influential part of the city’s economic and cultural fabric.
A BIA works in partnership with the city. Its goal is to create a thriving, safe and competitive area that attracts shoppers, diners, tourists and new businesses.
A BIA is created when people who own or lease commercial property in the area agree to do so. It is run by a volunteer Board of Management. All commercial and industrial properties within the BIA pay a levy that is collected by the city and returned to the BIA for local use. Funding is also available from the City for such things as façade improvements, murals and cost-shared streetscape improvements to create a more attractive and marketable image for the area.
Toronto relies on the local business community to drive the process of establishing a BIA. It is established only after local businesses choose to work together for their mutual self-interest. The BIA develops their own budget which is funded by a levy on local businesses. Programs and initiatives are determined and funded by the BIA in consultation with the city.
It takes about 8 months to educate local businesses on the benefits of a BIA, establish a steering committee, vote to determine if sufficient support exists within the community, determine BIA boundaries and agree on the amount to be levied.
As an area becomes more appealing through improved streetscape and programs, businesses benefit from increased traffic.
The longest stretch of Yonge St. in Toronto without a BIA is the area north of Highway 401.
Since Toronto created the first BIA in 1970, the BIA model has since been replicated around the world. Toronto currently has the largest number of BIAs of any urban centre in the world.
Click here for more information on BIAs or contact Mike Major at firstname.lastname@example.org.