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Yonge Interviews: Rob Sysak, Executive Director at West Queen West BIA

This mural at Queen and Dovercourt represents the evolving neighbourhood

Rob Sysak, Executive Director at the West Queen West BIA

An example of graffiti along West Queen West, close to Gladstone

New eateries like Bolt highlight a change on the west side of West Queen West

Just one of many leasing opportunities available between Bathurst and Gladstone

The Gladstone represents the border of West Queen West

Take Queen Street to Dovercourt and you'll come across a mural that says "You've Changed" in huge white block letters. The mural is the multifaceted creation of artist Jesse Harris, a project made possible through Spectrum Arts Projects, Cooper Cole gallery and the City of Toronto's start partnership program. On one hand it provides a positive message for the patients residing at the adjacent Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), while on the other it represents the changing nature of the neighbourhood itself. West Queen West, the stretch of Queen Street that runs from Bathurst to Gladstone, is an area that has undergone rapid transition in recent years and now more than ever its BIA, the West Queen West Business Improvement Area, is pushing to make the city more aware of what the community has to offer. 
Part of the BIA's approach has been to promote businesses by reaching out directly to its target audience through social media. The campaigns encourage people visiting the area to stay in the area. Shoppers are given recommendations for spots to grab lunch nearby, while the BIA encourages its members to work together to do the same, to promote each other rather than compete with each other. They motivate visitors to cross the street and experience the stretch on both the north and south sides. 
West Queen West is home to more than 400 businesses, restaurants, and galleries. Much of the neighbourhood falls in Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina. According to 2011 census data, the last year for which census data is available, 45 per cent of people living in the area are between the ages of 20 and 39. West Queen West, known as the creative heart of Toronto, is a young, but growing neighbourhood facing a lot of revitalization. 
To tell us more about these changes—and there are many on the horizon—we talk to Rob Sysak, executive director at the WQW BIA, who walks the 2 km stretch visiting members every week. 
To get us started, can you give us a little background info on West Queen West?
West Queen West is the heart of culture and innovation in the city of Toronto. We have hotels, restaurants, retail, art galleries, and so much more, but the cool thing is we have a shared philosophy: every day is a day to celebrate art and culture, but all the while bringing commercial success to everyone in the area. We're proof that through art and innovation we can come up with solutions to difficult issues that not only affect our neighbourhood, but the city.  
You're taking a fun and witty approach to your social media campaigns, especially when you're talking about specials. What kind of a response have you been getting?
I didn't realize before [we had a social media team] how intimate and how much people do respond. It's instantaneous. Our members are starting to share more. Small and independent businesses especially in West Queen West work so hard seven days a week and there's not a lot of time off. It's been a slow process, but it's really starting to work. We've really grown together. We're known as West Queen West now. An Australian luxury magazine did a story on Toronto and actually called us West Queen West. Four years ago it would have been Queen Street West. There was a street in Ottawa being rebranded and the rebranding lady called me and said 98 per cent of the people on the questionnaire for that street, when asked which street they should model themselves after, said West Queen West. Our name is getting out there. We're the first at doing things and we're not afraid to try things. 
What are some of the bigger risks that you took this year?
To compete against online and big business you can't just be about great shopping, because you can do that online. You have to be about a destination. We have some great things happening. Our planters, we have five of them covered in anti-graffiti art, we're hoping to have all 75 and have a public outdoor art gallery. We're going to do a big thing for World Pride. Queer Street West has been a big part of it, but we're going to be a cultural hub during World Pride. The Gladstone becomes the Gaystone. We're hoping from Dovercourt to Gladstone we'll have extended hours for restaurants and the bars to be this place of celebration until four in the morning. We have folks at Lisa Marie who want to throw a block party, but we can't close the street so we're going to try to close the laneways. During North by Northeast, we're going to have a second legal graffiti alley between Niagara and Tecumseth. 
We're able now to have a live traffic count, not to know anyone's ID or anything, but basically what we get is I'll be able to find out if there are 18,000 people near the park. We're able to compare it to the week before, so it helps our businesses see if things we're doing are working. It's from people using wifi and things like that. For us, it's just a number, all I have is a number, but you can't believe how helpful that is. Before it was anecdotal, now we will be able to see if people actually came to the area.  
How have you seen the neighbourhood change over the past few years?
Dramatically and it's going to change even more. When I got there initially there was a lot of framing shops and smaller mom and pop stores. We're still independent, but the way things go sometimes with assessment values, things go up and sometimes the leases go up. We're lucky that we have some great landlords that have kept our membership independent. We do have Starbucks and a Shoppers Drug Mart, but you'll notice the Shoppers, the windows right on Queen Street most of the time they're clear. You go to other shoppers and they're covered up you can't see inside the store. It's not happening here because they're working with us. Even the bigger businesses are working with the West Queen West.
We're also narrow. We have an average storefront width of about 17 feet; you can't be a big gigantic box store and come in. It's just not the dimensions for you. We've lucked out with the kind of landlords we have, who do give them the chance and keep things reasonable, and the structure of the buildings won't allow a giant box store. Although, we are getting an Anthropologie coming in soon and right next door to it will be a new boutique Beer Store with no empty returns. There's another restaurant coming in that's going to be as popular as Terroni, if not more, some people were telling me, so there will be lineups for that one. We're moving in that direction. It has changed and when things change the prices do go up sometimes, it's neither good nor bad it's just the way it is. I think West Queen West is growing up with the people who are growing up in the area. Areas mature just like people. 
What's next for West Queen West?
We're going to have signature things that are gateways, physical things, so you'll know you're in West Queen West (the planter art). It's going to be a place where you could come stay for a few days and you wouldn't have to leave that 2 km strip. When you're in West Queen West, you will know what's going on in West Queen West. That's the goal. The goal of the BIA is to make sure people are aware you're in the area and how can we make sure you're aware of what's going on, the great businesses, and the events. We don't want you to miss any of the fantastic stuff in West Queen West. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Sheena Lyonnais is 
Yonge Street's managing editor. This interview is part of an ongoing series profiling Torontonians that are changing the city. 
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