The city must support small businesses facing unprecedented challenges

Opinion: The city of Vancouver’s plan to establish a business and economic development office is timely and critical. A key focus must be on a stable and predictable business and investment environment

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Vancouver is home to 22 business improvement associations, or BIAs, not-for-profit organizations whose primary objective is to support, promote and advocate on behalf of more than 25,000 businesses and commercial properties throughout the different districts they serve across the city.

As BIAs work directly with business owners, they hold specialized knowledge and insight into their unique challenges and potential solutions.

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BIAs work to make sure businesses have a voice on a wide range of issues that affect them, including taxation, policies and regulations. Their significant, but often overlooked, contribution also includes funding community safety, sanitation, beautification, neighbourhood events and graffiti removal on private property.

Each BIA is a microcosm of a local economy, and while they have individual needs, the overarching issues and areas of common focus are seen across the city.

The Strathcona BIA, which supports 800 business and commercial properties, is an example. Through decades of evolution, we have seen the development of business clusters such as apparel, designer home decor products, food retail and production, arts spaces and galleries, automotive servicing, and technology. These business clusters are the result of the ingenuity and hard work of entrepreneurs, along with the appropriate economic conditions and business environment — and in some cases, persistence in the face of difficult-to-navigate regulations and red tape.

When we explore future economic development for our city, we must begin with the obsession of nurturing and sustaining a predictable, un-complex and cost-efficient environment that will attract and also retain businesses and investment.

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Today, businesses in Vancouver face unprecedented challenges, not the least of which are macro-level inflationary pressures, the safety and security of the operating environment and labour shortages — so the city’s plan to establish a new Business and Economic Development Office is timely and critical. The path forward has the potential to support the overall development of our city by viewing urban planning objectives holistically, with appropriate consideration of key economic drivers, constraints, opportunities, and deficiencies — and by connecting urban development initiatives that are often planned in separate silos.

As our city continues to speed up housing development and neighbourhoods are reshaped, planning will become an exercise that demands even more thoughtful consideration of the integral role that businesses of all sectors and sizes play in providing the essential products and services to residents, the workforce, and visitors.

The expectations that come with the planning for a business and economic development office will be significant, but we must not confuse performance indicators with more policies and regulations. A key focus must be on a stable and predictable business and investment environment that can stimulate business creativity and entrepreneurial confidence. It should include strategies to lower the cost of doing business, increase viability for all startups, and enhance capacity to scale their operations while reducing bureaucratic complexity. A key component must be initiatives that support small businesses so they can create jobs and, in turn, invest back into their communities. Another key element must be ensuring public infrastructure is well-maintained, streets are cleaned, and the public realm is safe and accessible.

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There is a tremendous opportunity to work collaboratively and strategically with the 22 BIAs who have a unique street-level perspective because of the support they provide to members inside each of their neighbourhoods — “on-the-ground” and “in the trenches,” as we like to say.

I believe that a partnership between the City and BIAs is a public and private partnership in its truest form, with the potential to bring about collective solutions to tough challenges and to seize new economic opportunities.

A healthy city is a city that evolves and grows. The level of our capacity to create a diversity of business experiences in a safe, predictable and welcoming environment will be a critical leading indicator to the future development of the city and region. The question on how to attain and maintain that kind of environment for businesses needs to be the first and primary focus of Vancouver’s new business and economic development office.

Vincent Kwan is the executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association. 

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