WALKERTON – The downtown business community in Walkerton has faced challenges in the past, particularly with organizations representing and promoting downtown businesses.
Nevertheless, as has been pointed out repeatedly, Walkerton has a vibrant, attractive and busy downtown that serves as a model for other communities.
The BIA board and members gathered for a face-to-face meeting Aug. 18 at the Walkerton arena – with COVID protocols in place – to discuss steps forward in the face of the most recent challenges. Approximately 40 people were present.
The recent challenges include the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many downtown businesses closed, or operating on a reduced basis, for over a year. The BIA’s manager has also resigned.
After a message of welcome from Mayor Chris Peabody, Brockton’s clerk, Fiona Hamilton, opened the meeting with an outline of possibilities for moving forward.
“We want to focus on the best model to serve our downtown…what is the best fit for our businesses,” she said.
Hamilton noted the BIA is a unique organization representing a specific geographic location. Members pay a levy. There is a board of directors, but the BIA’s budget is set by council. Council also has a say in the BIA’s structure.
Hamilton said at this point all options are on the table for the BIA moving forward. She’ll be looking for feedback for the next couple of weeks – communications should be sent to her at the municipal office (call 519-881-2223 ext. 124; mail care of the clerk to Box 68, 100 Scott St., Walkerton, ON N0G 2V0; or email to email@example.com).
The first option outlined by Hamilton is to dissolve the BIA. If the BIA were dissolved, there would be no levy, nor would there be special promotions and events, or a co-ordinating body representing the business community. However, this option has some advantages, according to Hamilton, including businesses using the money paid out in the levy to promote themselves.
She noted the highly successful Walkerton Dollars promotion wouldn’t be lost. The dollars could still be redeemed through the municipality.
Another advantage to dissolving the BIA would be the freedom to conduct forms of fundraising, for example, a lottery, that regulations now prevent.
The main disadvantage is the work would have to be done by volunteers.
Another option would be to establish a chamber of commerce. Membership would be voluntary, with fees set by a board of directors. It would be a separate non-profit organization and would not be a local board of the municipality. Possible benefits would be the ability to represent businesses outside Walkerton, possibly lower fees, and access to certain things like health benefits for businesses too small to offer something like this on their own.
Hamilton said staff could be hired and the Walkerton Dollars program could be continued.
The main drawbacks would be the work of setting it up – and the need for interest from the business community.
A third option would be to dissolve the BIA and create a separate committee to organize events and promotions. It could be informal, or operate as a committee of council with formal agendas and minutes. There would also be staff support. The success of a committee would rest on volunteer efforts.
Funding would have to come through council, or independent fundraising.
An advantage of this set-up would be the possibility of promoting all of Brockton, not just Walkerton.
Dissolving the BIA isn’t the only BIA option. There is also a fourth possibility, that of a streamlined BIA with smaller boundaries, perhaps for downtown businesses only. This may reduce the need for an office and full-time staff, with the possibility of sharing wages with the municipality. Without a separate office, there would be more money available for promotions.
The benefits would include better staff retention, streamlined decision-making, and a reduced levy.
Options five, six, etc., are the ones Hamilton wants to hear about, that will see the business community through to the other side of the pandemic recovery.
Input is not only welcome, it’s needed. Hamilton said there’ll also be a survey.
A number of people at the meeting provided verbal comments. Some said they’d be happy with either a BIA or chamber of commerce. Walkerton at one point had both, and it worked well.
There might be a hybrid model, with a chamber of commerce that has a committee that functions as a BIA. Hamilton suggested the possibility of partnering with another municipality.
It was noted this conversation is taking place all over Ontario right now, and was further noted the municipality needs to do what it can to support employees and volunteers. This has not always been the case.
Among the other comments were the following:
• Volunteers will be essential whatever the future model.
• There can be no more “build and burn down” cycle – we must commit to success.
• Nothing seems to work but we still have a beautiful, successful town.
• Some BIA promotions don’t directly help some businesses, but they all benefit from beautification, and the general success of downtown.
• There isn’t going to be one model that works for everyone.
• A desk at the municipal office would give a BIA manager needed access to information and communication.
• In what universe do we have an organization that everyone has to pay a levy to support downtown businesses…that’s why I support a chamber of commerce.
• I resent paying something to benefit someone else.
• If downtown businesses are successful, all businesses are successful.
• The cost of the BIA should be covered by all taxpayers.
• Bullying and harassment of volunteers has been a problem in the past.
Hamilton urged people to contact the municipal office if anything like this happens. She also said there’s no mention of “associate members” in the Municipal Act.
BIA president Jessie Bates said, “We have so much to offer here. We have other towns call and ask what we do, and we also have communities call and offer help.”
She made it clear she wants her downtown to be successful.
“We do have the will to keep this going,” she said. “The end (of COVID-19) is coming; we can only go up. We need to move forward.”
Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times