Business improvement on the table

Yellowknifer, May 27, 2015 - When the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce sent out a survey about a plan to tax localized businesses to make improvements in their areas - called business improvement districts - first impressions definitely weren't great. 

"What we want to do now is (tell) people you might still not think it's a great idea, but why don't you come and learn more about it," executive director Deneen Everett told Yellowknifer, after emphasizing the sessions were not designed to convince anyone to change their minds. "Then you can make an informed decision after that."But the number one thing they heard back from respondents was a desire for more information.

Everett said she had made a mistake sending out the survey a few months ago about business improvement districts before providing respondents with a lot of information about the concept.

In response, the city and the chamber of commerce organized two information sessions set for earlier this week. Two representatives were flown in: former resident Ellie Sassville, currently the executive director of the Kingsway District Association - a business improvement district in Edmonton - and Stuart Kehrig, senior planner for small enterprise and economic sustainability for the City of Edmonton. Sassville was also the former director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce.

The first session on Monday night had about 20 people in attendance, including Everett and Bell, as well as Coun. Phil Moon Son, For Women Only owner Vicki Tompkins and First Air's manager of sales, Kim Poulter.

Bell said that members of city council had seen business improvement districts by various names work in other cities and jurisdictions, not just large cities like Edmonton.

"It's an advocacy group that can work with other groups to promote the downtown area and get the business community involved," Bell told Yellowknifer earlier that day, pointing out that these districts can also incorporate community groups and neighbourhood associations as well. "The bottom line is, we haven't tried one of these agencies and we're trying anything and everything to try to achieve our objective of improving the downtown (area)."

The councillor said the perception that the idea would result in unfair costs to many of the city's business was why many business owners were so negative.

"I think people thought everyone was going to be taxed for downtown benefits," he said. "That's not how it would work."

According to Bell, city council wants to know if this would work in the downtown or other parts of town. He said this recent push follows the most recent strategic plan for the city done during the last election.

"The first step was sending people to conferences," Bell said. "This is the next step."

At the Monday meeting, Kehrig explained how the Edmonton city government partnered with what they called business revitalization zones to improve marketing, street beautification, renovate a front facade or even assist with funding for a mixed-use development to help increase density and drive foot traffic to that specific business area.

Yellowknife businessman Gerry Merrithew expressed concerns about whether the city, territorial or federal governments would financially contribute to a downtown business improvement district due to their high number of offices in the area.

And after Sassville spoke about how Kingsway created a program to help address the homeless population in her district area, Son pointed out that GNWT and federal government had already put in a lot of money for the city's social programs.

"I don't think this is going to help," he said. To which Thompson replied, "There are other organizations that are dealing with these issues. (A business improvement district) is not the be all and end all."

The city's 75th anniversary and former Mad Raven nights were brought up as examples of the business community's success at independently organizing events brought traffic and revenues to the downtown area.

"The city knows that this has to come from the business community," Bell said. "The funding may be there to do a needs assessment but it'll ultimately have to be some sort of group of business owners, reps or people who in the downtown to do this."

Bell said he can't say how much a business improvement district in Yellowknife would cost. It would depend on how many members would be involved, the objectives of the group and its annual budget. He estimated the financial levy or tax would be similar to the current cost of joining the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, but pointed out that a smaller designated area would definitely increase the price of joining a business district.

Naidoo estimated the cost of the information sessions was relatively low, limited to air travel and simple catering for the events along with the free use of the facilities at city hall.