Commercial Street and other portions of Nanaimo’s downtown could have a new business improvement association by next summer to help promote business and tackle security issues. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

Nanaimo Chamber working to create new downtown business association

New BIA to focus on downtown business promotion and security could begin operation next summer

By next summer, downtown Nanaimo could have a new business improvement association.

Kim Smythe, Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce CEO, said the Downtown Nanaimo Business Association was registered as a non-profit society in April and the physical boundaries the new association will encompass have been established.

Downtown Nanaimo has operated without a business improvement association since 2017 when the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association dissolved.

Smythe said getting the new association together has been in the works since the fall of 2018 and its development is at the point where the city is drafting a petition to be presented to downtown property owners.

“We now have decided on the exact boundaries and the city is working on the wording for the petition and we suspect the petition will go out in September, October at the latest. We’ll have 30 days to gather the results of that petition – pretty sure that we’ll win it – and go back to [city council],” Smythe said.

The new BIA’s boundaries will extend from the downtown waterfront, including 1 Port Dr., Commercial Street and connecting streets and both sides of Terminal Avenue. It will operate independently from the Victoria Crescent and Nanaimo Old City Quarter associations, which Smythe said have specific needs and concerns relating to their areas.

“The Old City Quarter has their gig going. We’re all on the same page about working together when it benefits both organizations and working separately when it only benefits one organization,” Smythe said.

He said one of the problems with the DNBIA was that it tried to encompass too much territory and too broad a range of issues within the areas it covered.

The new BIA will also operate without city grants or council involvement, relying instead on a levy paid by downtown property owners.

“With the old BIA the first question you had to answer was, ‘How is council going to react to this?’” he said. “Now that council doesn’t have a stake in this … you’re focused on one thing, ‘How is this going to benefit us?’”

Other than a coordinator, there’s no need for staff, he said. The chamber could provide bookkeeping services by the hour and offer its meeting spaces and infrastructure, eliminating staffing, renting, furnishing and office equipment costs.

The association’s priorities, such as how much to invest in marketing and promotion versus enhancing downtown security, will be determined when a board of directors convenes to make those decisions.

“When I did my survey back in January … what are the priorities for the organization as you see them, merchants came back and No. 1, with just over 60 per cent of the vote, was security. No. 2 was marketing with 35 per cent of the vote,” Smythe said.

Fred Jeffery, who owns Lucid clothing store, was among a group of downtown merchants who were working to form a downtown merchants association until the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March. Jeffery said he never feels unsafe on Commercial Street and Lucid’s sales are higher than they were last summer, in part due to stronger support from shoppers for local businesses. He sees a levy charged to pay for a business association to give downtown merchants a collective voice as an investment to help generate more business, but said he also understands the added cost can be tough for businesses that are barely making ends meet.

“We really have to push local and we have to push downtown … In the time that we’re in, we need a collective voice,” Jeffery said. “That voice is important and if we all just pitch in a little bit, hopefully that will create the traffic to cover that cost and then some. It’s an investment in ourselves, as a group, but I also can understand it can be really hard when you’re just putting it together.”

Dave Lawrence, Victoria Crescent Association vice-president, questions the timing of creating a new BIA.

“I think it’s a poor time to do it,” Lawrence said. “I think there’s a lot of things that need to be done downtown before this thing even happens. You need focus on cleaning up the downtown. I really want to see the city working well with the RCMP to address the issues. Business owners are being very vocal with what they’re seeing and what they’re dealing on a daily basis. I don’t think a downtown business association would be able to tackle those sorts of problems right out of the gate.”

Lawrence also said it’s not a good time to add more costs to downtown business operators already financially strapped by COVID-19.

“This is a time when you have businesses closing down and going out of businesses,” he said. “They don’t have any extra money with all the new COVID rules … I don’t think anyone would be willing to chip in a couple hundred bucks to run a new business association.”

Lawrence said he would like to see the city, RCMP and mental health resources brought to bear on the “intense” problems associated with homelessness downtown and bring those under control before adding more security personnel, who are currently unable to deal with many of the situations they encounter.

Smythe says a new active BIA will help create a healthier downtown Nanaimo.

“It’s good news because downtown merchants and property owners are getting themselves focused around a new strategy to attract people downtown and make it a better place,” Smythe said.

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