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Main Street business owners push back against 'unnecessary' BIA expansion

Benjamin Frith of Neptoon Records: "The BIA expansion process has been undemocratic and sneaky at every stage."
Erin Boniferro, owner of Collage Collage in the 3600-block of Main Street, was one of the speakers at city hall Tuesday who opposed expansion of the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area.

A group of Main Street business owners showed up at city hall Tuesday in an unsuccessful attempt to stop an expansion of the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area society's reach in the neighbourhood.

The owners told city council the move was unnecessary and will ultimately mean more expenses for small business owners along the stretch of Main Street, between 19th and 29th avenues.

Council was unanimous in approving the expansion.

Erin Boniferro, owner of Collage Collage art studio and store in the 3600-block of Main Street, said she is already able to access services she and other owners need to keep their stretch clean, accessible and inviting to customers.

Boniferro said she has had “great success” in communicating directly with the city to have park benches moved or extra garbage taken away. Services have also been made available to help vulnerable people in the neighbourhood.

“We're a huge part of what makes 19th to 29th great,” she said of her fellow business owners. “In fact, I don't think you'll notice a difference if you walk up Main Street — once you cross the threshold of 19th — between those of us who are part of the BIA, and those of us who aren't.”

Neptoon Records

Benjamin Frith, whose family owns Neptoon Records in the 3500-block of Main Street, spent most of his three minutes at the microphone criticizing the city’s consultation process about the BIA’s planned expansion.

“The BIA expansion process has been undemocratic and sneaky at every stage,” Frith said.

He disputed city staff’s report that only 29 per cent of property owners and 26 per cent of business operators opposed the expansion. Frith argued opposition was well over the 50 per cent threshold set out in the Vancouver Charter to stop expansion.

He said the city circulated a letter to businesses during an extremely busy holiday season.

“Most businesses did not open the letter, and the ones that did mostly did not realize that by not objecting, they were in fact voting in favour of it,” said Frith, whose family owns the building that contains their record store.

“I know businesses that did not even receive the letter at all. If the requirement was for 50 per cent of businesses to write in favour of the BIA, we would not be standing here today — there would likely be single-digit support.”

Council also heard opposition to the expansion from John Welk of Welk’s general store, Shira Blustein of the Acorn and Arbor restaurants and legendary volunteer, Brian Dyck, who has single-handedly removed graffiti in the mid-Main Street area for a couple decades.

“Let's be fair — businesses already bear too heavy a tax burden in Vancouver,” said Welk, who has operated his store for 19 years.

“But to be honest, the part of all of this that bothers me the most is the flawed, undemocratic process in which it is being presented. I don't agree with a voting system that counts the non-response as a yes vote. That's not a fair and democratic voting system.”

The Mount Pleasant BIA society will now expand its reach along Main Street to include the stretch between 19th and 29th avenues. Photo Dan Toulgoet

$2,000 annual increase

Neil Wyles, executive director of the Mount Pleasant BIA, told council that he wanted to work with new BIA members to create events and programs that specifically benefit the stretch between 19th and 29th avenues.

“We're looking forward to rolling out some of our established programs to make the area more attractive for people to come and spend time and shop and dine in,” said Wyles, who acknowledged there has been pushback to the BIA’s expansion for a few decades.

“Well, time has marched on, and we found that interest in the BIA has increased for a variety of reasons. With this level of interest, we felt we would be successful in expanding.”

Over the past couple of decades, he said, the area has changed and so has the mix of merchants. Many owners of new businesses have shopped in other districts with BIAs and found that experience valuable, Wyles said.

“Many of the merchants have seen what's happening in areas with BIAs and want that for their area,” he said, noting expansion would include two new board members from businesses located between 19th and 29th avenues.

Council heard from staff that the anticipated cost to property owners would vary and would depend on the size of the property. A 2,000-square-foot restaurant, for example, would pay approximately $2,000 a year in a BIA levy, equalling roughly five per cent of a property tax bill.

That increase would then likely get transferred to a business owner.

'Political might in unity'

Dr. Omar Elesseily of Studio Health in the 4100-block Main Street told council he supported the BIA's expansion, noting he belonged to a BIA in Dunbar before his business moved to Main Street 10 years ago.

“I think the BIA, in and of itself, ensures that the voices of the small business owners much like myself are heard and considered in decisions that shape our community,” Elesseily said.

“It's not just a car-free [day] thing and it's not just a graffiti removal thing. I think we truly have a voice inside the city by amassing our political might in unity.”

Several councillors acknowledged the concerns of business owners opposed to the BIA’s expansion. At the same time, they praised the work of BIAs around the city, and noted approval of the Mount Pleasant BIA’s expansion would be reviewed in two years.

“I think what I really took away from the speakers who objected is, the process was poor,” said Coun. Rebecca Bligh. “And I would probably have to agree with that. That being said, I worked myself in a business for 15 years, and it was part of a BIA, and it was an incredibly positive outcome.”

Coun. Mike Klassen: “I realize that all of these costs do burden our small businesses, but at the same time, I recognize some of the incredible opportunities that come from being a BIA. I have to say, I've watched our BIAs over the years, and I think it's a wildly successful aspect of what we have in the city right now.”

Green Party Coun. Pete Fry. Photo Mike Howell

'Fraudulent representation'

Coun. Pete Fry was critical of a petition he and other councillors received from Dyck, who included names of business owners who no longer operate on the street.

“I appreciate that folks came to show up [at city hall], but I have a real problem with this petition,” Fry said. “I look at the one page in here and it's like a blast from the past, man. This is referencing businesses that have not existed in 10 years.”

Fry said he both recognized the “good work” that BIAs do and the opposition to the expansion on Main Street. But he focused again on how troubled he was by the petition, calling it a “fraudulent representation” of the pushback from businesses.

'Give them a phone call'

Outside the council chamber, Dyck said the names that concerned Fry were included to show the years of opposition to the BIA’s wish to expand. He challenged councillors to talk to existing business owners along the stretch between 19th and 29th avenues — that appear in the petition — to verify that opposition.

Glacier Media observed several dozen names and signatures.

“Give them a phone call,” he said.

Boniferro and Frith were disappointed by council’s unanimous vote, with both expressing concern about the city’s process to gauge support for expansion. Lack of communication from the city and not being informed about meetings were highlighted.

Boniferro said she was “guesstimating” that it will cost her another $400 to $500 to operate.

She reiterated a point she made in her speech to council.

“If you looked at 19th to 29th, and it was filled with graffiti and debris and businesses that were closing, and total neglect, I’d be all over [the BIA expansion],” she said. “But as I'm sure you know, it looks pretty good up there, and people have been taking care of it.”