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Elmira BIA looking to do more … and needs funds to do it

Elze Bredenkamp, owner of Elze’s Wonderful Wines, is protesting alongside local businesses against the requested Elmira BIA levy that would see her annual contribution double. [Ali Wilson / the observer]

Looking to expand the amount of work it does downtown, the Elmira Business Improvement Area wants to raise the fees its members pay for first time in 30 years.

The organization is primarily supported by a special tax levied on commercial properties in the core that raises $30,000 each year, the same amount since 1988. The move is meeting with some opposition, as have past attempts to expand the geographic area of the BIA – thus forcing more businesses to join in – as a way to increase revenues.

Established in 1980 the BIA is a designated geographical area that encompasses 73 properties and some 100 businesses in Elmira. Its main purpose is to promote business and make enhancements to the downtown core.

The BIA has made a formal request to Woolwich council to increase rates, raising the amount it collects to $50,000 a year. The move, the groups says, would allow it to shift their focus from events such as sidewalk sales to more active enhancements and promotion of the core area.

Rajbir Sian,  economic development and tourism officer for the Township of Woolwich, is the staff liaison that sits in on the BIA’s meetings. She says the increase is coming at this point in time after 30 years of being stagnant, precisely for that reason.

“I don’t mean to speak on behalf of the BIA, I can speak on behalf of my position as the active officer. The BIA has not had a levy increase since 1988 and, as you can appreciate, with rates on inflation, with cost of living increases going up and overall, with economic wages also changing over the last 30 years, for the BIA to operate with the same budget that it did when it was first conceived is quite astonishing; it limits them from being able to do some of the things that they wish to do,” she said.

If the proposal goes through, the additional funds will be used to support projects such as tree planting downtown, seasonal banners and decor, seating areas, decorative planters, welcome signs, new and updated lighting fixtures, art sculptures, enhanced advertising and beautification projects to promote the downtown.

Based on the current total levy of $30,000, the minimum contribution from a commercial property inside the area is  $50, with a maximum charge of $1,000 from business owners each year. Actual rates are based on the assessed value of the property as determined by the municipality. Under the current designation, two properties contribute the minimum amount, while six properties contribute the maximum. On average, the rest pay $549 each year.

Downtown Elmira storefronts.

The BIA’s proposal would increase the minimum rate to $100 and the maximum to $2,000. In addition, the group wants the maximum total board levy increased to $50,000, with a two per cent increase annually thereafter.

On top of the local taxes, the BIA each year receives $10,000 from Walmart, part of a settlement agreement following longstanding legal battles over the power centre development south of St. Jacobs. That rate won’t be effected by the current proposal.

To get to the higher rates, the BIA needs to overcome any objections from property owners. If enough of them – one third of the properties representing one third of the total assessment – do take issue formally, the initiative dies. Even council, which administers the BIA and its bylaws, can’t proceed under that scenario.

Businesses in the BIA area have 60 days following the mail out of notices to make objections. If the proposal does go ahead, the increases would be applied in 2019.

One member of the BIA who will be effected by the change, Elze Bredenkamp, owner of Elze’s Wonderful Wines, has organized a petition against the changes, an effort she says already has the signatures of 90 per cent of businesses in Elmira.

“My reason for starting this is I don’t see that the BIA has done so much for downtown,” she said. “The fact that we are already paying exorbitant taxes, for a little wine shop like myself and I have been in business for 15 years to pay close to $3,000 a year in property taxes, makes it the reason why. From my vantage point where I sit here at my wine shop, I can directly with my eye see about five vacant spots where people can’t make a go of businesses.

“We don’t make a lot of money, we are not here to make thousands of dollars like Toronto or Waterloo businesses,” she added. “What does Elmira need a BIA for? That’s what a lot of us are asking.”

Property owners have until April 15 to send written input to the township clerk’s office.

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