Business community needs a boost, says mayor

Sidney Business Development Group seeks alternate approval process

Proponents of a business improvement area (BIA) in downtown Sidney are seeking an alternate approval process through the Town of Sidney.

In presenting council on Monday a 65-page report on economic development options for the downtown business community, the Sidney Downtown Business Group (SDBG) ended a five-month long research and consultation phase, seeking marketing plans for the community in the face of growing business pressure and competition. The best option, they say, is a BIA comprised of some 380 local business owners.

The support received by the SBDG, said SBDG chair Cliff McNeil-Smith, has been tremendous. In its report, the group lists 76 business and commercial property owners who are lending their support to the BIA concept.

Another 10 are non-profit groups or businesses outside of the downtown boundary — all of whom say they will become associate members of the BIA.

“The level of support is incredible,” said McNeil-Smith. “People are saying there are merits to it. On the economic side, the report speaks to the issue of business here closing faster than they’ve been opening.”

While the formal supporters are nowhere near half of the estimated 380 businesses in the catchment area, McNeil-Smith pointed out they have met with some 200 owners. Not all elected to give official support, he said, but almost everyone agreed a BIA could be beneficial.

A BIA, as proposed by the SBDG, would automatically include all businesses in a downtown boundary area. The BIA would charge members a levy each year, generating between $250,000 and $275,000 in each of its first five years. That money would be mostly used to market the area and help create a vibrant business community. The SBDG estimates an initial startup cost of around $350,000 in 2013.

“We are facing a lot of competition from elsewhere in the region,” said McNeil-Smith. “Eight other business districts have established marketing funds and we’re facing competition from new and expanding areas.”

Benefits of a BIA go beyond just retail businesses, added Steve Duck of the TIDES group, who has been behind much of the early work of the SBDG.

“Service providers, like accountants, are seeing the impact of an economic downturn,” Duck said. “Businesses are struggling in this economy, and not just the ones on Beacon Avenue.

“It’s time to try something that has a proven track record.”

Sidney mayor Larry Cross agrees the local business community needs a boost. Council is neutral on the BIA matter, he noted, saying it’s up to the businesses themselves to see it through or not.

He said as mayor he is responsible for the well-being of the entire community.

“We have to do something,” he said. “If we don’t do this, then what do we do?”

Cross credited the SBDG for its hard work and detailed report. He added the support shown for the BIA proposal  has been good, considering the difficulties involved in tracking down every single business owner.

Cross said council has asked town staff for a list of options and recommendations for a BIA bylaw. That will include the cost of an alternate approvals process (counter-petition). A bylaw, he continued, will have to set out a legislative process and structure for a BIA.

A report from staff is expected back to council for debate and decision at the Monday, Dec. 17 meeting.

Council, said Cross, is trying to stay neutral on this issue, and will consider its merits and feedback from the community.

Should council reject the alternate approvals process, he said the SBDG could hold a referendum.

The SBDG is not done yet, agreed McNeil-Smith. They will continue to offer information at about the BIA proposal leading up to an approvals process. Should the BIA win the day, McNeil-Smith said the SBDG’s work will be done and its various members would be absorbed into the BIA legislative structure, along with other downtown businesses.