Business Revitalization Zones make community a priority

From Beakerhead to artBOX shopping districts offer unique experiences

Business Revitalization Zones in Calgary are formed to represent member businesses by promoting and enhancing their specific districts which range from the well-established Kensington shopping area to the most recently established zone in Montgomery. That role however involves different things in different areas and has evolved far beyond planting flowers and holding street fairs.

In October when the International Avenue BRZ launched its new artBOX initiative to provide space for artists and cultural events Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra commented that “here’s a business community that understands it’s about more than putting up banners.” A unique project artBOX is the result of an 18-month partnership between the International Avenue BRZ and Calgary Arts Development that transformed a 4900 square-foot-building on 17th Avenue S.E. into a temporary multipurpose arts space that will provide studio performance workshop and exhibition space.

According to Alison Karim-McSwiney International Avenue BRZ’s executive director artBOX is an innovative initiative to help address the lack of arts facilities in East Calgary and is part of an effort to drive the area’s revitalization process. “Art is for everybody so we felt it was a very important piece that needed to be part of the community.”

Karim-McSwiney adds that businesses in the BRZ which runs along four kilometres of 17th Avenue S.E. see themselves as part of the larger community and want to ensure that revitalization plans include everybody. “The businesses here tend to be fairly aware” she says. “We are very cognizant of what the community needs.”

She explains that the BRZ wants to ensure gentrification doesn’t push out existing residents and smaller businesses. “Why would you want to get rid of something so special?” she says referring to the area’s unique shops and restaurants. “We have to make sure we really help them survive.”

Helping small businesses survive is one of the main goals of Calgary’s 10 BRZs: Bowness Calgary Downtown Association Fourth Street Inglewood International Avenue Kensington Marda Loop Montgomery Uptown 17 and Victoria Park. According to Lorelei Higgins an issues strategist with animal and bylaw services at the City of Calgary BRZs are legislated under the Municipal Government Act which outlines how they are formed and what they are mandated to do. The funding comes from member businesses through a levy that is collected by the city. “Most of the well-known and well-loved areas in Calgary typically do have BRZs” says Higgins.

For the most part BRZs use that funding to address crime and improve safety; enhance the environment through landscaping lighting and banners; remove snow garbage and graffiti; host special events to attract the public; and provide a voice on new development and other community issues. Higgins acknowledges however that the definition doesn’t incorporate the large social role BRZs often play. “I would say they’re really social conveners.”

Annie MacInnis is executive director of the Kensington BRZ and current chair of CBIZ which represents most Calgary BRZs (International Avenue and Victoria Park have chosen not to be members). MacInnis says all BRZs in the province have worked together to update the description of their role which will be considered as part of changes to the Municipal Government Act. If approved it will state that BRZs are established “to advocate promote and create a vibrant commercial area where community and business flourish.”

MacInnis adds that it was difficult to come up with something specific enough to address the role of BRZs but broad enough to encompass their differences — the fact that “community” comes before “business” in that wording is no accident. “We all feel that we do not act in isolation” she says. “The more that the community feels engaged and a part of that shopping district then the more they take ownership of that district.”

When the Kensington BRZ formed 28 years ago MacInnis says the shopping district was losing business and focused on presenting itself as an appealing alternative to the malls — an ongoing battle for BRZs. At that time Kensington positioned itself as a destination where people come to meet friends go for a coffee or have a drink on the patio and of course shop. The Kensington BRZ also brings people into the district by holding special events like the Sun and Salsa Festival and in December it will once again offer horse and wagon rides.

“What we sell is the experience” she says. “It’s about spending a half day or a day here — people come and hang out.”

Today MacInnis says Kensington is in the enviable position of being a fairly successful BRZ that’s been around for a long time but there are new challenges to face such as a perceived lack of parking and plans to increase density of developments.

“The role of BRZs is to help businesses in our area thrive so that people want to come” she says “In general most BRZs do the same things but it may vary based on what your BRZ is like and what challenges are there.”

In Victoria Park the diversity of the community is one of its challenges as well as one of its benefits. The BRZ stretches from Sixth Street S.E. to Second Street S.W. and from 10th to 17th Avenues including the Warehouse District trendy First Street S.W. and a section of Macleod Trail. The area has historic buildings as well as modern towers and includes large multinationals like IBM mom-and-pop shops like Joe’s on 12th restaurant a hotel and everything in between.

“We are not based solely around one contiguous strip… so because of that we have a lot of diversity” says BRZ executive director David Low. He adds that the range and depth is also what makes that community sustainable so the BRZ works to ensure that no one particular use crowds out another. For example when a tower is being built the BRZ encourages the developers to make space available for smaller users. “Mixed use is one of our mantras.”

To bring more people into the neighbourhood Low says the BRZ provides “unique genuine authentic” experiences that engage them and make them want to return. Two recent examples are Market Walk which involved local businesses and featured local artisans making use of vacant spaces and the recent collaboration with Beakerhead when Vic Park hosted the massive Raygun Gothic Rocketship that served as the main information hub for the event — and was also the site of a great party on Beakernight.

Although all BRZs make an effort to bring people into their districts the people their businesses rely on most are the people who live in their districts and the neighbouring communities. That fact which the province’s BRZs hope to acknowledge through changes to the Municipal Government Act was underlined following the flood in June 2013. MacInnis says the flood impacted eight of the city’s BRZs — about 30 businesses have not reopened — and businesses and residents in those areas helped each other. In Kensington for example business owners who were able to get into the community were delivering food to Sunnyside residents and first responders and pitching in to help with the cleanup. “These were businesses that were trying to keep their business open with a generator” she adds. Community members returned the support — in hard-hit Victoria Park Low says some customers left 100 per cent tips at neighbourhood restaurants when they reopened.

Low describes the situation now as a recovery process and says the fallout from the flood will continue to be felt for a long time which is just one of many new challenges BRZs will face going forward. “Many small business owners have only about a month or so financial cushion” says MacInnis. “As a result of the flood many have lost that cushion.”

CBIZ along with the Chamber of Commerce Calgary Economic Development Calgary Arts Development Authority and others formed the Calgary Business Recovery Flood Task Force to support those businesses through initiatives such as the YYC is Open marketing campaign. She adds that despite their differences the BRZs also have a lot in common and often work together. “We don’t really compete against each other we compete against the malls.”