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BIA hopes new blood, funding will give it a boost

Elmira’s BIA hopes a recent infusion of cash will help jumpstart the downtown business organization. There are also encouraging signs that new members may boost participation rates.

The money arrived this month in the form of $90,000 from the developer of the Wal-Mart-anchored power centre in St. Jacobs, part of a deal arranged several years ago. With the store now opened, the payment was finally released, with a further payout of $10,000 to come.

While no plans have been made for the extra money, it’s a welcome addition to the organization’s $30,000 annual budget, collected through a special tax on businesses in Elmira’s core.

“We’ve now got some extra income to do the things we want to do to spruce up the downtown,” said Hugh Weltz, noting the BIA will be deciding shortly its plans for the cash. “We’re leaning towards investing most, if not all of it, and using the interest … to fund annual projects.”

Sandy Shantz, the Ward 1 councillor who serves as Woolwich’s liaison to the committee, said the funds arrived just as the group appears to be going through something of a renaissance, with new merchants downtown turning up for monthly meetings.

“I think the BIA is turning the corner in that there’s some new in interest in what the [group] is doing,” she said.

Early this decade, however, members of the BIA contemplated winding down the organization, citing a lack of participants on its executive and general malaise in the membership. A drive to breathe life into the group by expanding the catchment area to include most of Elmira met with stiff opposition, and the idea was shelved.

The Business Improvement Area is a committee of council, appointed by and answerable to the municipality, which sets the group’s budget. The BIA in Elmira was formed in 1980, ostensibly to help deal with major downtown renovations that began in that era – long-term debt associated with those improvements was retired in 2002, after which the group seemed somewhat adrift.

It did take part in the often energetic debate over plans for the King/86 Developments power centre, eventually settling its dispute with the developers, the deal that years later resulted in the cheque for $90,000.

Admitting the BIA has had its ups and downs, Weltz, a longtime member and chair, said he sees brighter prospects for the group and for downtown Elmira given the recent housing boom, including plans for some 1,000 new homes on the west side of town.

“These people will be within walking distance of downtown. I see good things for downtown Elmira over the next few years,” he said, noting businesspeople in the core will have to tap into that potential.

Laurel Davies-Snyder, Woolwich’s new economic development and tourism officer, also sees the possibilities downtown. Having spent the last eight years dealing with downtown revitalization in Cambridge, she knows there’s much work ahead.

“Downtown revitalization takes a long time, and it’s cyclical – you can go strong for five years, and then slow down again,” she explained.

Getting anything done requires cooperation between community, merchants, landlords and the municipality. The biggest factors for success are leadership and the ability to act on a unified vision.

Because each downtown is unique, with its own mix of businesses, people and cultures, local ideas and solutions will be needed in Elmira, said Davies-Snyder, adding the BIA can play an important role.

“BIAs can be a very powerful tool in terms of development and business improvement.”

Right now, the Elmira group is searching for that vision, said Shantz. Leadership, somebody to put some new ideas in motion, will go a long way in reshaping the downtown, and in reenergizing the BIA.

Measures such as flower baskets and tree-planting can help beautify the downtown, but adding amenities such as a café – “I hear people say we need a bistro downtown all the time” – requires a businessperson willing to see the potential and act on it.

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