Brockton council defers decision on future of Walkerton BIA

·5 min read

BROCKTON – Council has accepted, with regret, the resignations of four members of the Walkerton Business Improvement Area board of directors.

The next step was deferred from April 12 to a future meeting, at the suggestion of Coun. James Lang, “so council can make an informed decision.”

The report prepared by Fiona Hamilton, clerk and director of legislative services; Sonya Watson, CAO; and Trish Serratore, chief financial officer, included a recommendation to amend the 2022 budget to include $6,000 to support the Christmas Market event.

The report stated that over the past two months, there have been four BIA board member resignations, leaving only one business representative and one council representative on the board.

In addition, efforts to recruit a BIA manager have been unsuccessful.

The report indicated no funds have been levied from BIA members, and the tax rate bylaw has been on hold, awaiting input from the BIA board. Depending on how council decides to move forward, the bylaw may need to be amended to address the BIA levy.

Council was asked in the report to consider whether the BIA should be dissolved. The report presented a number of arguments, the majority of which were in favour of dissolving the BIA.

This includes the fact that not levying funds from businesses “may assist those that have been struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.” It would allow businesses to do their own promotions and advertising, partnering with like-minded businesses. Those businesses that have not traditionally benefitted from the BIA model – trades shops, for example – would no longer be paying for a service that does not provide them with a direct benefit.

If the BIA were to be dissolved, any liabilities would become liabilities of the municipality; ditto for any assets.

It was noted in the report that the municipality has already assumed and expanded one of the most successful BIA programs – Brockton Dollars – and assisted with two events held last year, the reopening and Christmas Market.

The report pointed out that should be BIA be dissolved, individual businesses would have to be informed of the need to take responsibility for their own individual promotions. The BIA’s website and social media pages have largely been inactive for the past six or seven months.

Despite reduced services provided by the BIA over the past several months, Walkerton’s downtown continues to be busy, and the report speculated that some of the busier business owners may not have time to devote to serving on the BIA board.

One option proposed in the report would be to shift the focus of the BIA to the “improvement, beautification and maintenance of municipally-owned land, buildings and structures in the area… rather than on events and promotions.”

This model would see a reduced BIA board of three members meet three times a year to approve the beautification project and budget. The amount levied would be reduced.

As stated in the report’s conclusion, “Staff recognize the immense contributions business owners have put forth over the past few years towards the BIA board. However, the many challenges related to retention of staff and board members, lack of clarity moving forward and additionally the amount of legislative, event co-ordination and financial tasks that have been assumed by municipal staff has led to a recommendation to dissolve the BIA board.”

The current BIA budget authorizes $83,000 as a levy. However, as stated in the staff report, in the past, the majority of this amount was used to hire staff for the BIA, while the promotions budget was very limited.

With the municipality assuming the Brockton Dollars program and providing funds for the Christmas Market, many businesses would be receiving nearly the same level of service as in previous years without the levy, according to the report.

The future of the BIA has been in question for the past couple of years, following the resignation of the last BIA manager and COVID-19 lockdowns. Meetings have been held, and input from downtown business people solicited, to determine the future direction of the BIA.

In 2021, BIA representatives met with municipal representatives about the possibility of reducing the BIA area, or even dissolving.

An information session on Aug. 18, 2021 outlined several possibilities, and comments were made by a number of people present at the meeting.

A report presented by Hamilton to council in October 2021 noted “many of these individuals commented on the resentment felt by many levied members outside of the downtown area who feel that they have no choice but to pay a tax for which they see limited direct benefit as the promotions organized by the BIA (such as the Christmas Market, etc.) are targeted more towards specific industries and the downtown location.”

She further noted there has been criticism of BIA board members that has “escalated to the point of harassment” which discourages membership on the board.

Hamilton’s report suggested there’s strong support for a Chamber of Commerce model, which would not require municipal involvement and would be funded through membership fees. However, there was also support for “a well functioning BIA model.”

The BIA board had met on Sept. 22 and recommended it remain status quo at that time.

Despite the decision to keep operating with municipal assistance, the BIA situation has continued to deteriorate since then – mostly behind closed doors.

Susan Wright, who has an extensive background with the local BIA, has been speaking with other downtown business people and said in an interview that all have been complaining about the same thing – lack of communication. Neither the municipality nor the BIA itself has been forthcoming with information about what’s been happening with the BIA.

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times

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