Business Improvement Districts (BIA) are like Community Associations but for businesses. They lobby, foster, facilitate and advocate for improvements to their neighbourhood.
You might know that as BRZ (Business Revitalization Zones) which is what they were originally called in Alberta but have recently converted to the BIA terminology that is used in the rest of Canada.
Over the past 40+ years, BIAs in Calgary have evolved from shopping districts to mixed-use streets with vibrant café and restaurant cultures, as well as health and fitness spaces (there were no yoga and spin studios in the ‘80s), and retail shops. They have been incubators for hundreds of small independent Calgary business start-ups.
As a result of this transformation, streets surrounding Calgary’s BIAs have become attractive places to live, as evidenced by the numerous new condos recently completed or under construction next to them.
Full disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA) from 1995 to 2006. The CDA is a BRZ/BIA but chose to call itself an association as the Board thought the term “revitalization” gave the Downtown a negative connotation.
In the ‘80s, old pedestrian streets in established neighbourhoods across North America were struggling to survive as shoppers flocked to the big new suburban malls. In an effort to save their businesses, shop owners across North America rallied together to set up Business Revitalization Zones (or BRZs as they were then, recently they have been renamed Business Improvement Areas or BIAs in line with the rest of Canada). In the United States, they are called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
The world’s first BIA was set up in Toronto in 1970 for the Bloor West Village. Today, Toronto has 80+ BIAs. The Alberta Municipal Government Act (MGA) allowed for the formation of Business Revitalization Zones in 1983, with 17th Avenue BRZ being the first (established in September 1984) and Marda Loop the second (December, 1984). Today the 12 BIAs in Calgary represent over 5,000 businesses.
The MGA allows a BIA to be established when the majority of business owners within a defined area vote in favour of setting up a BIA. Once established, a Board of Directors are elected who develop an annual work plan and budget, which is submitted to the City of Calgary. The City then determines the tax levy based on the total assessment on commercial properties in the defined area needed to generate the revenue requested in the BIA. The BIA levy is in addition to municipal taxes, so the BIAs are self-funded.
Why are BIAs needed?
BIAs are created where business owners feel services provided by the City with existing tax revenues are inadequate in creating a clean, safe and attractive place for their customers.
Calgary BIAs proactively work with Calgary Parking Authority on parking issues, with police and social agencies on panhandling and homeless issues and with City of Calgary Transportation and Planning on sidewalks, roadwork, cycling lanes, street furniture and reviewing new developments. Some BIAs even have their own “Clean & Safe” programs, hiring people to pick up litter, remove graffiti and identify safety concerns to police.
In addition, BIAs typically manage their own banner program and baskets programs, marketing initiatives and maintain a website to promote business events and news.
Public Art/Signature Events
In the early years, several Calgary BIAs developed public art programs designed to make their street more attractive and interesting places for pedestrians. 17th Avenue and International Avenue had ambitious mural programs; 4th Street had a sculpture program and the CDA a “Benches as sculpture” program.
Signature events were also a key tool to attract people from other quadrants of the City to visit a BIA and see for themselves what it has to offer. For example, in 1990, 4th Street established the Lilac Festival to kick off spring in Calgary - today it attracts over 100,000 people May.
International Avenue fostered the development of “Around the World in 35 blocks Food Tour” in 1997 to showcase the array of ethnic food available along its 35 blocks 17th Ave SE; the program still exists today.
For many years, the Downtown Association hosted the annual Santa Claus Parade and today coordinates events on Stephen Avenue Walk.
Alison Karim-McSwiney has been the Executive Director of the International Avenue BIA (17th Ave SE from 26th to 61st Street SE) since 1993. She notes, “Revitalization is not for the faint at heart. It takes at least a couple of decades to turn around an area and you’ll encounter many setbacks along the way. Then there will be a certain tipping point where it all starts falling into place. Our community building effort is not to gentrify as we don’t want to lose what makes our area unique. We are an affordable, inclusive neighbourhood. ”
Indeed, International Avenue is in the midst of a mega transformation to accommodate the 17Ave SE BRT.
Whenever I travel to a new city, one of my first Google searches is for BIAs or BIDs, as it will routinely identify the best places to discover the local urban buzz.
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