Downtown Nanaimo merchants, property owners approve BIA mandate

NANAIMO – Critics say time for matching taxpayer grant should come to an end.

Nanaimo’s two downtown business improvement areas have the support of the majority of downtown property and business owners, but critics say that the organization mandated to improve the city core should be weaned off its taxpayer handout.

An alternate approval process issued by the city to property and business owners downtown revealed in Business Improvement Area 1, 20.9 per cent – owners of 68 of 326 parcels – representing 15 per cent of the $214 million in land assessment, voted against a renewal bylaw.

That number dropped to 14.7 per cent, or 10 of 68 parcels, representing $3.9 of $38 million in land assessment, in BIA 2.

According to the Community Charter, in order for the petition to fail, at least 50 per cent of owners or owners of land parcels that represent half of the land value in the BIA must file against the BIA for the petition to be valid.

Jim Taylor, representing the newly formed Nanaimo Ratepayers Association, said while the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association, the organization mandated with collecting BIA levies and rejuvenating downtown, does good work, it is time to stop matching the funds its collects with taxpayer money.

DNBIA collects about $250,000 in levies from property and business owners in BIA 1 and BIA 2. The city matches those funds.

There are a lot of other municipalities in B.C. that have BIAs but Nanaimo is the only one where the city matches funds,” said Taylor. “There is no doubt the city is spending lots of money trying to breathe life back into downtown Nanaimo … but the Nanaimo Ratepayers Association is opposed to what is basically an advertising and promotional organization aimed at bringing business into the downtown core. It seems another example of city hall meddling in the marketplace.”

Taylor added that while the appearance of downtown has been improved, it is still facing challenges as a business centre.

This is after 10 years of subsidies being paid to the DNBIA,” said Taylor. “By now, business in the downtown core should be able to attract and retain business without a million-dollar handout from the Nanaimo taxpayer.”

The city has spent an estimated $1.1 million matching levies paid to the DNBIA and its predecessors since 2001. BIAs have operated in Nanaimo since the late 1980s under various bylaws and organizations.

Many not in favour of continuing BIAs often cite DNBIA salaries, which amount to about 60 per cent, as the reason for opposition. A few years ago, with many business and property owners unhappy with the returns they were receiving for their levy payments, a similar alternate approval process came very close to failing, resulting in a remake in the BIA constitution, the dismantling of the Downtown Nanaimo Partnership Society and the creation of the current DNBIA.

The alternate approval process is a city-initiated mailout to BIA property owners and businesses that requires a response to be counted.

City watchdog Ron Bolin said the levies are a good form of self-support, but called the matching city funds “a form of extorted charity to the unneedy.” He suggested gradual reduction in grant funding over the five-year period of the new term council approved Monday, a proposal Coun. Fred Pattje wasn’t ready to accept.

I’m a long way from yanking any funding from the DNBIA at this point,” said Pattje, adding the DNBIA is working hard to improve the downtown area.

Coun. Jim Kipp said he appreciates downtown revitalization, but questioned the use of public funds at a time when the city is raising recreational facility rates and looking at other ways to save or generate more revenue.

“Parks and rec is looking at swimming pool fees because we’re trying to scrape up about $50,000 a year,” said Kipp. “It’s a tough one, we are the only city in B.C. that funds its [BIA], but I understand originally it was just supposed to be seed money to get this going so I have some concerns with it.”