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Q&A with TABIA's John Kiru on Toronto's Best Export: the BIA

Earlier this spring, the Bloor-West Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) celebrated its 40th anniversary.  The event had more than neighbourhood significance, though, since the model of local improvement set by the merchants of this west end neighbourhood has since been copied around the city and around the world.

As the role that BIAs play in revitalizing Toronto and helping to build the city may often be overlooked, we sat down for a chat with John Kiru, Executive Director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas.

Ed Keenan: Business Improvement Areas are a Toronto invention -- can you tell me a bit about how it all got started?

John Kiru: Absolutely. The whole BIA concept really started 40 years ago, in 1970, in Bloor West Village. A couple years before that, malls had started to open in the area -- Yorkdale, Sherway -- and that was also a time when people literally went underground, too. The subway system had gone under Bloor Street, and so people had left the street.

The local merchants down there, a handful of them, said, "We have to do something about this or we might as well pack up and go into malls ourselves." They looked at the model of a mall -- a developer has a mall and charges rent, but above and beyond the rent that you pay in a mall, there is a merchant's fee, and it's those dollars that are used by the mall to promote, to do festivals, to maintain the sidewalks, to do the advertising on radio. It's collective dollars above and beyond the rent that you pay in a mall.

The merchants looked at the model of the mall and said, "why don't we try to do that here on Bloor Street in this cluster of stores."

And how did they do that?

A lawyer and a couple of local merchants in Bloor West Village between Jane and Runnymede came up with a scheme. They went to the city and said, "if the majority of the people in our neighbourhood agree, will you, on our behalf, collect a levy that you will then turn back over to us to use to promote and market our neighbourhood?" In the wisdom that existed at the time both in the province and the city said absolutely. And in 1970, the very first BIA was established as the Bloor West Village BIA.

And it was a success!

The phenomenon has gone worldwide since then. Today we have 71 BIAs in the city of Toronto, over 290 in the province of Ontario, and over 500 across Canada. The United States picked it up and they called them BIDs, Business Improvement Districts, and they have almost 3,000 across the country. Johannesburg, South Africa has BIDs, Japan has BIDs, Australia has BIDs, I've been to Germany, France, and the UK working with their BIDs as they establish legislation and whatnot.

I like to say it's Toronto's best export.

How exactly do BIAs work?

Every commercial and industrial  property owner in the area contributes with a levy charged to them on their tax bill. The total amount collected is set by the BIA board of management, and each person's share is based on the assessed value of their commercial property, so it's fair and equitable. All the money gets turned back over to the association. They are run by volunteer boards of management -- nobody gets paid -- and the money is exclusively used for improving city property. You can do things on the boulevard, clean it up, add interlocking brick, benches, flowers, lights for Christmas and etc. And you can also use it for marketing, through festivals or advertising and promotion. That's all the money is used for. Not a dollar that's collected from anybody is to be spent on any one individual merchant.

It may seem obvious, but though local businesses run these organizations for their own interest, their interest is really to see the neighbourhood thrive. So area residents benefit too.

Yes. It's an absolute fact that as Main Street goes, so goes the neighbourhood. That's why we continue to promote the shop local campaign, reminding people that one of the reasons you need to support local businesses is that if a business strip becomes a vacant and desolate part of the city, your property values abutting that will be effected too. My real estate friends -- when they sell in Bloor West Village they make sure they drive along Bloor Street to show the cafes, the women pushing the stollers, the kids and families and the vibrant shops and then they'll drive down the side street to the house. That's just an example of how the main street merchants fortunes affect the entire neighbourhood.

People who are aware of BIAs might immediately think of street festivals and Christmas lights. Can you talk a bit about some of the less-well-known initiatives that BIAs undertake?

Well, a number of BIAs have invested in teams to go out there and really do a good clean up job. We've got graffiti removal stuff that we've gotten into, which portrays a cleaner, safer environment. Poster removal initiatives -- this is stuff that isn't strictly in the street furniture, flowers and marketing category, it's really building community strengths. The Downtown Yonge BIA is very active in the Streets to Homes program, because it's important, and a lot of the young homeless people would hang around on Yonge Street. So by providing them the opportunity to move through that program they found one way of dealing with some of the urban issues that we face as BIAs.

So yes, we sometimes step outside the traditional box to promote and market ourselves in other ways, recognizing that what helps the city helps us.

Ed Keenan is Yonge Street's Innovation and Job News editor.

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