Opinion: Calgary BIAs breathing life into neighbourhood businesses

Behind every great Calgary established neighbourhood is a strong Business Improvement Area, writes Richard White

This pop-up parklet sprang to life in the community of Marda Loop as a result of the work done by the local BIA. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

They used to be called Business Revitalization Zones (BRZ) in Calgary.

Today they’re called Business Improvement Areas (BIA). Whatever you want to call them, they’ve been a huge Calgary success story. 

The BIA’s are like Community Associations in they try to engage everyone in the community to work together to make their neighbourhoods a better place to work, live and play. 

It’s not an easy task. I would know; I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association for 10 years. 

BIAs energizing Calgary neighbourhoods

The Calgary Downtown Association was directly responsible for the revitalization of Stephen Avenue in the 1990s.

They’re currently championing 21st Century plans for the renovation and revitalization of Calgary’s historic main street.

This year, they produced the hugely successful Glow Festival on Stephen Avenue.  

Creating annual events attracting Calgarians to come see what is new in the ‘hood has been a big part of BIA’s mandate in the past.  The biggest is 4th Street BIA’s Lilac Festival, with the most unique being International Avenue’s “Around the World Food Tours” that have been happening in various formats since 1997.  

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Today, summer festivals and night markets produced by the Inglewood, Bowness and Marda Loop BIAs, and Kensington’s Christmas events, foster community engagement and pride.

In the past, many BIA’s have  managed public art programs (murals and sculptures) along 17th Ave, 4th Street and along Barclay Mall in downtown.  

Today they’re activating alleys, revitalizing underpasses and commissioning public art.

The BIA’s have been instrumental in the success of main street redevelopment in Marda Loop, Inglewood and Kensington. International Avenue BIA lobbied successfully for their main street improvement to create a multi-modal street for cars, transit, cyclists and pedestrians. 

Perhaps the most visible evidence of the BIA’s work are the colourful banners and flowers that you find along Calgary’s various main streets – Stephen Avenue, 1st Street SW, 4th Street SW, 10th Street NW , 17th Avenue SW, 17th SE, Kensington Road and Bowness Road in Montgomery and Bowness. 

The operation of BIAs in Calgary

The BIA’s work with the businesses within their boundaries to develop marketing and branding campaigns. They improve the streetscape and pubic areas and lobby for accessibility improvements (parking, cycling and pedestrians). A BIA works with the City for improvements to services on behalf of the businesses. 

They work very closely with police, social services, parks, roads and bylaw to ensure their areas are clean, safe and attractive for people who are working, visiting and living in the area.

The work of the BIA’s is funded by a special tax levy based on the property assessment of each of the area businesses. 

Each BIA has an elected volunteer Board of Directors who establish an annual budget submitted to the City for approval. The City then determines the tax rate for each BIA based on their budget request and total assessment base of their businesses.

Most BIAs have at least a paid Executive Director who works with the Board to develop and execute the initiatives based on the approved budget.

Collectively Calgary’s BIA’s represent 6,000+ business along 220+ blocks across the city.  They represent about 20 per cent of all Calgary businesses. They account for $670 million in assessed property and business value.

Calgary’s BIAs

The City of Calgary has 15 BIAs. Most Calgarians will be familiar with the older ones:

  1. Calgary Downtown Association
  2. 4th Street
  3. Inglewood
  4. Kensington
  5. Mainstreet Bowness
  6. Marda Loop
  7. Montgomery 
  8. International Avenue (17th Ave SE)
  9. Victoria Park
  10. 17th Ave Retail & Entertainment District

However in recent year several new ones have been established. It will be interesting to see how the new BIAs enhance the communities around them.

  1. Beltline
  2. Greenview Industrial
  3. Chinatown
  4. Crescent Heights Village
  5. Bridgeland

The Last Word

In 2014, the Canadian Institute of Planners chose Inglewood as Canada’s greatest neighbourhood and Kensington was a runner-up.

Today both communities are even more attractive places to live, work and play than they were then. 

The success of a BIA isn’t just measured by the health of businesses. It’s also by the new residential development they attract.

The plethora of new condos and infill housing being built in the communities of East Village, Hillhurst/Sunnyside, Inglewood, Marda Loop, Mission and Beltline over the past 25+ years is due to the success of their respective BIAs.

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