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.
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.