As a course project, a team of Ryerson undergrad students recently studied the “opportunities for enhancement of the public realm, a strengthened business base, and a safer community for Corktown”. As one of the few Trefann Court residents who attended the students’ April 13 presentation; I was shocked to hear that one of their suggestions was a new BIA (business improvement area) for Corktown: the area bounded by Berkley, Queen, River, King and Eastern / Front Streets. Call it “Son of Queen East BIA” – will this be another horror story? Long-time Trefann and Corktown residents may know some of the seamy history of a previous BIA attempt; I’d like to share my recollections. (In writing this, I couldn’t easily find any information on the www.corktown.ca website about the 2007 BIA, but at least Google provides a few links. For further BIA details, check the Trefann email list, circa 2006 – 2007.)
A significant portion of the $15,000 of Section 37 money given to the city by Shoppers Drug Mart (for permission to build their store at Queen+Parliament) was spent in 2006 on a brochure promoting concept of a Queen East BIA. An organization that I thought was already defunct by this time – QUEBRA – publicly endorsed the BIA, along with the CRBA. It was rumoured that one CRBA board member who was promoting the BIA was simultaneously jockeying to become the paid staff person for this new BIA.
Most informed Toronto residents know that downtown Queen Street East does not have a strong retail community. Within the boundaries of the proposed 2006 BIA – Queen St, from Victoria St to River St- one finds a large hospital, a city-owned parking garage, a large military facility, a park, 2 churches, a school, TCHC housing, private homes, some men’s hostels, and several social agencies. In total, this accounts for at least 50% of the frontage along Queen and would all be exempt from paying any BIA levy. So the remaining private businesses along this 1.5 km stretch of Queen East would have to carry the full financial burden of a BIA. (There were, and still are, numerous vacant storefronts on Queen East; it’s unclear whether they would be assessed “reduced rate” BIA fees).
It was frustrating that the city allowed only a very short period of time for local businesses to vote whether they wanted a BIA. Many businesses voted “no”, but 153 of these 190 “no” votes were deemed invalid by the city, since some property owners didn’t provide the city with a list of official building tenants. Another peculiar tactic was the city’s “negative billing”-like to BIA voting: businesses who didn’t vote were counted as “yes” votes. We reported these irregularities to the City Auditor, but didn’t receive any feedback. The city simply claimed that there were sufficient “yes” votes to approve creation of this BIA.
The BIA’s initial board in Jan 2007 had 20 members, unmanageably large, but acclaiming any and all interested persons seemed to be the only way that the BIA proponents could ensure they got themselves onto the board. The BIA board had unproductive monthly meetings for 2 years, as well as AGMs in Jan 2007 and Jan 2008; at both AGMs, the attending BIA members voted down proposed budgets, since many business owners wanted to dissolve this BIA which had been suddenly forced upon them. About the only thing that this BIA ever accomplished was renaming itself from “Old Queen Street BIA” to “Historic Queen East BIA”.
A motion to dissolve the BIA was approved in Jan 2008 (link) and submitted to our city councillor and other city staff on Feb 8, 2008, in accordance with city’s then-current rules; to date, the city hasn’t acted on that request. So this Queen East BIA #1 might still technically exist – who knows? For stores within the bounds of both BIA #1 and the proposed, partially overlapping new BIA #2 – would those businesses be hit with 2 separate BIA levies?
How healthy is our local business community in 2011? Well, the promised retail component of the 2 new Streetcar Development condos on King St remains vacant. The premises in the Dominion Square complex occupied by the French bookstore apparently remains vacant after 2 years. I own a small business on Queen, and it’s irksome that the idea of a Queen East BIA always seems to be promoted by persons who don’t own or operate local businesses, and so wouldn’t be affected by the mandatory annual $1,000+ surcharge to be paid by every business, to fund a BIA. (The exact amount of the levy is determined by amount of street frontage and BIA’s annual budget. For example, a $100,000 budget needs 100 businesses to each cough up $1,000.)
I hope that this “classroom theory” of possible benefits, applied by these young students who are recommending a BIA, is put into perspective: let’s remember Queen East’s recent BIA history, and consider the desires of actual local business owners. I say we should first build a stronger, “critical mass” of local businesses before taxing them with the significant costs of funding a BIA. Let the businesses decide: they are the ones who should making an informed discussion whether to create (and pay for) a Queen East BIA.