Ontario BIA Executive Director speaks to local businesses

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The Old Town Kemptville BIA, in partnership with the Municipality of North Grenville, hosted a special presentation at the Municipal Centre last Thursday by the Executive Director of the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA).

Kay Matthews has been with OBIAA for the past eight years, and has spoken across North America about the importance of BIAs and ways that towns, no matter how small, can leverage their resources to promote and grow their historic downtowns. “We are hyper local community economic development,” she says.

The first BIA was started in 1970 by a group of business owners who wanted to preserve the Bloor West Village in an ever-expanding Toronto. They wanted to create a system where everyone paid, contributed, and benefited from the development of the area. “The need for downtown revitalization has spread all over the world,” Kay said. “It started right here in Ontario, and that is something to be proud of.”

Kay is a big proponent of the power of BIAs, and how they can leverage partnerships in the community to make a difference for the whole municipality. She is adamant that all BIAs need to undergo strategic planning, so they have a picture of how they want to develop the business area. This includes economic development, marketing, promotion, beautification, maintenance, and creating a vision for the downtown. “BIA 101 is building a sense of place,” she says.

BIAs across Ontario do this in many ways, including using innovative banners through the downtown core, branded street signs, decorative lighting, façade improvement programs, and organizing festivals and events. Kay says that many BIAs have started animating the streets, rather than organizing special events, which takes a lot of leg work and administration. This includes things like community murals, or placing pianos strategically along the street. She noted that the Somerset Village BIA in Ottawa recently placed the Chinese symbols for luck in a parkette along Somerset Street to encourage people to come to the area. “You can do events and promotions, but how are you keeping yourself top of mind?” she asked.

One of Kay’s biggest pet peeves is when BIA boards spend too much time talking about the lack of parking (something that has been highlighted as an issue in Kemptville). She believes creating a lively and walkable downtown trumps the parking issue. “The car is not king,” she says. “The people in the car are king.”

After years of hearing about the death of the old downtown, Kay believes that cities and towns are slowly moving back towards valuing the old downtown as the heart of the community. She believes it is the job of the BIA to leverage this and create a vision that will support this transition. “It’s about optimizing our jewel,” she says. “BIAs have the opportunity to change the narrative.”

At the end of Kay’s presentation, Mayor Nancy Peckford thanked her and expressed council’s commitment to working towards a healthy and vibrant downtown. “We’ve got a great BIA Executive Director and group of businesses,” she said. “We need to land a brand downtown and run with it.”

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