All posts by Darren Shock

OBIAA 2019- Community Builders: Beyond Banners and Benches

The Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA) recently held their annual conference in Ottawa, Ontario. Themed “Community Builders: Beyond Banners and Benches”, the conference focused on highlighting the ways Business Improvement Areas have changed in their 49 years of existence. From their initial roots in taking on small-scale beautification projects, many have become the lead economic development organization for their downtown area. The conference included a diverse range of sessions that reflect on the new roles of a BIA, and more specifically its role in community economic development.

Here are some highlights:


Master the basics: Peter Kenyon, founder and director of western Australia-based Bank of I.D.E.A.S kicked off the conference with a simple message: business and economic development is fundamentally about relationship building. Peter used the story of Tom O’Toole, who built one of the highest earning single bakery retailers in Australia by mastering the fundamentals relationship building with his staff and his customers, to illustrate his point. Peter reminded us that success in economic development relies less on money or professionalized activities than it does on building strong relationships with the volunteers, staff members, and “customers” (e.g. visitors, potential investors, local businesses) that can help carry out coordinated community revitalization strategies.


With little funding, you can still have dancing in the streets: Andrew Sercombe from Downtown London offered insights into successful strategies used to activate public spaces using limited budgets, building partnerships with their business community, or existing and emerging communities, events, and trends (e.g. Pokemon GO). Downtown London has created activation’s ranging from pop-up seating and dance lessons, to large-scale street festivals and Instagram-worthy alleyways. For each of these activation’s, Andrew shared a range of tips based on their successes and failures, which can guide BIAs of all sizes.

Social Media

Forget about Twitter: Avery Swartz, founder of Camp Tech, delivered an engaging overview of social media for BIAs. Starting with a framework for digital marketing, Avery offered tips and resources on identifying and reaching your audience, creating content (including ten ideas), and measuring impacts. For those struggling to split resources to manage multiple social media channels, Avery suggested that the best return on investment will come from a focus on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, based on work required and average monthly users.


Creating retail microclimates: New York-based consultant Larisa Ortiz introduced the concept of retail microclimates, where the visibility, mobility, and accessibility of an area paired with the anchors and tenant mix create a unique “retail microclimate” of businesses that support one another. Using a “Do this, not that” approach, Larisa offered tips on making sure visibility, mobility, and accessibility are appropriate for allowing complementary retail microclimates to develop.


Digital Main Street continues its expansion: Since its launch in August 2018, Digital Main Street has been rapidly expanding across Ontario. In a presentation outlining the program, there was an overview of the impacts the program has generated so far: over 1,100 businesses participating in the online digital transformation training program, $602,500 in grants that have been distributed to small businesses, and a total of 105 jobs will be created through the program.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs’ Downtown Revitalization program advocates for the improvement of rural downtown’s through engagement of organizations that contribute to economic development. BIAs remain an important partner in that work, and annual conferences like this represent a key professional development opportunity for both BIAs and non-BIAs to strengthen our understanding of strategies and actions that are producing impacts.  If you missed the conference this year, you can access the presentations here.

Follow-up to January Downtown Revitalization Online Community of Practice

Our Online Community of Practice on the Digital Main Street program, held on January 17th 2019, quickly reached capacity. Based on continued demand, the OMAFRA is pleased to facilitate a follow-up session, on February 12, 2019, from 1:00PM- 2:30PM.

This session will again focus on the province-wide expansion of the Digital Main Street program. During this webinar, representatives from the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA) and Digital Main Street will be available to answer questions about Digital Main Street.

The session is open to anyone, but content will be focused on assisting organizations setting up Digital Main Street in their community, including administration of the Digital Service Squad and marketing of the program, rather than individual small businesses.

To register for the event, click here.

OMAFRA facilitates and coordinates resources and tools to assist rural Ontario communities with engaging in economic development. For more information on OMAFRA’s Downtown Revitalization program, visit our website or contact the Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Advisor in your area.

Want to Learn About Downtown Revitalization? Training on Nov 6 & 7 in Lindsay

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Downtown Revitalization Program is a comprehensive four stage approach to support economic development efforts of rural communities. As part of that program, OMAFRA provides intensive downtown revitalization coordinator training focused on identifying the processes and tools that are needed to successfully undertake a downtown revitalization initiative in a community.

An upcoming training session will be offered at Celebrations in Lindsay, Ontario on November 6-7. The training event can accommodate a limited number of participants, and will be open to individuals from: Continue reading Want to Learn About Downtown Revitalization? Training on Nov 6 & 7 in Lindsay

Planning your Work and Getting some Quick Wins

In this next entry in our series of blogs on the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Downtown Revitalization Program, we take a look at preparing your preliminary work plan, and the importance of “quick wins” to the initiative.

Before starting to collect and analyze data, you need an overall work plan to guide the Management Committee and Coordinator over the duration of the initiative. The team should have a strong grasp of the entire strategic process when developing the work plan, to ensure the scheduling of tasks considers:

  • The potential to use data collected in one activity (e.g. business and resident surveys) to inform subsequent activities (e.g. community design workshop)
  • The availability of resources and volunteers to carry out the tasks when required, including the level of effort and time required from the coordinator
  • The municipal budget planning process, and the need to submit short and long term projects for municipal council approval in the preceding budget year

Your Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Advisor can assist you with scheduling major activities, and provide templates to assist with the development of a comprehensive work plan.

Developing your work plan also offers a chance to tackle one of the key challenges you may face – keeping the team and community engaged and energized in the initiative, particularly through the less visible activities like data collection and analysis. The work planning stage is a great time to identify and plan for some highly-visible, high-impact activities that will help to promote and generate ongoing support for downtown revitalization.

Continue reading Planning your Work and Getting some Quick Wins

Tips for Completing your Rural Economic Development (RED) Program Application

The Rural Economic Development (RED) program supports projects that stimulate economic growth in Ontario’s rural communities. RED supports activities that create jobs and help open doors to local economic development. The program helps communities:

  • identify their economic strengths
  • be more competitive
  • diversify and grow their local economies.

The program is open and will accept applications until September 28, 2018

Applicants are required to read the program guidelines before completing an application form. The program guidelines provide detailed information on eligible applicants, project types, and costs, as well as the process for submitting an application and the process that will be used to assess the application. Continue reading Tips for Completing your Rural Economic Development (RED) Program Application

Building a Team for Downtown Revitalization

Continuing with our series of blogs on the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Downtown Revitalization Program, this entry will take a look at building your downtown revitalization team.

The motivation, energy, and commitment required for successful revitalization should come primarily from the community. Those from outside of the community may provide interesting insights, but revitalization only works when members of the community, local government, and local businesses commit to ensuring the long-term success of revitalizing their downtown.

building a team chartA revitalized downtown has the potential to benefit the entire community, so the lead organization may identify potential partners from across the community, and not just within the downtown area. Organizations like Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), Chambers of Commerce, service clubs, and non-profit organizations can be key resources to engage and align with. The organizations and individuals to engage will depend on the specific characteristics of the community. Continue reading Building a Team for Downtown Revitalization

Recap: Downtown Revitalization Community of Practice

The second online Community of Practice for Ontario’s downtown revitalization community was held in late March. The participants learned about a range of ways in which physical improvements made to downtown areas have contributed to business success.

Here’s a quick summary:

Click here to download the introductory presentation. Continue reading Recap: Downtown Revitalization Community of Practice

Best Practices for Downtown Revitalization

Building on the online model developed by the Agriculture Economic Development and Planning Community of Practice (AED COP), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is launching an online community of practice for Downtown Revitalization in Ontario.

What is a Community of Practice? It is an informally structured group that allows practitioners with an interest in economic development or downtown development to promote leading practices, share success stories, and Continue reading Best Practices for Downtown Revitalization

Strategic Planning is a Great way to Keep your Organization on Track.

Strategic planning should be embedded into the regular operation of any organization. It helps organizations make sound decisions to guide its activities over time.

OMAFRA has partnered with the Ontario Business Improvement Areas Association (OBIAA) to deliver a free program to build organizational capacity using the Strategic Planning Train-the-Trainer (TTT) program. The program engages and trains a core team of volunteers from within the BIA to strengthen their leadership skills and build a network of support and collaboration that will assist them in creating a strategic plan for their organization.

To participate, BIAs must:

  • Be willing to participate in the strategic planning process
  • Have a commitment from the Board to the process
  • Not be in a crisis situation
  • Have five volunteers (the Core Team) that will commit to be trained to facilitate strategic planning

The program includes five hands-on sessions delivered via webinar, running on Tuesday evenings at 7:00 pm starting November 28, 2017 until March 2018. Volunteers will learn about each stage of OMAFRA’s strategic planning framework, and how it provides a foundation for the next stage. As homework, Core Team members will facilitate that stage of the strategic planning process with their own organization. If you missed the Lunch and Learn on October 24, the slide deck below provides an overview of the program:

Continue reading Strategic Planning is a Great way to Keep your Organization on Track.

Lessons Learned from the Annual International Downtown Association

Themed “AuthentiCITY” the International Downtown Association (IDA) recently held its 63rd annual Conference and Trade Show in Winnipeg. The conference focused on examining the role of place management organizations in shaping prosperous downtown and commercial districts. After taking a few weeks to collect my thoughts, here are some of the key topics I continue to think about.

The uncertain future of retail: The popular media narrative of e-commerce growth signalling the end of physical “bricks and mortar” retail is easy to believe. However, sessions and speakers at the conference highlighted the nuances missing in that narrative – trends like the strong growth of e-retail but still limited overall share of Continue reading Lessons Learned from the Annual International Downtown Association