Vancouver businesses annexed by BIA say they feel ‘cheated’ by process

Click to play video: 'Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area expansion fight'
Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area expansion fight
WATCH: Business owners on Main Street in Vancouver say they're unhappy with the process through which the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area was allowed to expand to their neighbourhood. Aaron McArthur reports. – Feb 29, 2024

The City of Vancouver is facing pushback from some businesses who feel they were unfairly annexed by one of the city’s business improvement areas.

On Tuesday, city council unanimously approved the southward expansion of the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area (BIA) to include businesses on Main Street between 19th and 29th avenues.

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But the move came over the objection of numerous business owners who opposed the expansion and say the process to approve it was undemocratic.

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“That to me is the sticking point,” John Welk, owner of Welk’s General Store, told Global News.

“I couldn’t even believe it when I found out that somebody not voting would be considered a yes vote. We live in a democracy.”

The process for approving a BIA expansion is governed by the Vancouver Charter. Under the regulations, more than 50 per cent of the businesses in a proposed expansion area must formally register their objection or the expansion proceeds.

Ultimately, the city recorded 26 per cent of respondents opposed to the expansion, not enough to quash it.

Ben Frith, whose family owns Neptoon Records, told Global News the formal notifications came during the busy holiday season, and “quite frankly looked like junk mail.”

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He said businesses in the area have been fighting against joining the Mount Pleasant BIA for more than 20 years, and feel betrayed by the “reverse opt-in.”

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Frith said the mid-Main area is already a cohesive business community and doesn’t feel like it will get any value for the added cost of membership. The city, he said, already has gardening, street cleaning and graffiti programs, and he expressed doubt about the quality of the BIA’s marketing efforts.

“The amount of money they are asking … it’s not going to kill us, but there’s a lot of smaller businesses we see that are struggling. That potential extra thousands of dollars every year could sink them,” he said.

“If this had gone to a proper, legitimate vote and the area decided in favour of it, I am fine with that, it’s the will of our neighbourhood. But when we feel that we’re being cheated out of voting for this properly it’s really unfortunate.”

Ned Wyles, executive director of the Mount Pleasant BIA, said the group conducted extensive outreach with businesses ahead of the expansion.

He said the BIA operates a number of programs that are increasingly important as the city “downloads” services onto them.

“We have security programs, we have safety programs, we have graffiti programs, I have a clean team seven days a week,” he said.

“But at the centre of it, we are a marketing and promotions scheme, and I think that everything we do supports that to put feet on the street, to bring people into these areas and increase prosperity, right? It’s right in the name: business improvement.”

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The expansion is a pilot, with the opportunity for a review after two years. Wyles said he believed those benefits will become apparent to new members, and that by then the expansion will be a “non-issue.”

“There has been some long-stated misconceptions about what it is, how much it costs,” he said.

“People were thinking this is going to cost me thousands of dollars when really it costs hundreds.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, city staff said the cost will vary depending on a business’ size, but that tenants in a large building could be on the hook for a “significantly higher” tax bill.

An average 2,000-foot restaurant space, according to the city, would see a BIA levy of about $2,000 on top of their existing property tax.

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Vancouver Coun. Peter Meiszner told Global News that there was “room for improvement” in the expansion process.

“We did hear loud and clear from the businesses that were concerned about this expansion about some of the concerns they had about the notification, about the petition process,” he said.

Mesizner said because the process is governed by the Vancouver Charter it would require changes by the provincial government. That would take time, he said, but the city was looking into it.

In the meantime, he said he expects the Mount Pleasant BIA to step up and show its value to its new members over the next two years.

He said BIAs can provide a wealth of valuable services to communities, and have an on-the-ground presence that the city doesn’t.

“They are the experts in those neighbourhoods,” he said.

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