Amid business pushback, vote coming on downtown BIA

An aerial view of downtown Sarnia. Glenn Ogilvie file photo

Cathy Dobson

An effort to establish a new Business Improvement Area (BIA) for downtown Sarnia is running into opposition.

Downtown property owner Pat Coutu is a proponent who says forming a BIA would be a simple way to take marketing “to the next level.”

Patrick Coutu

The whole community would benefit if downtown’s profile was raised, he said.

But numerous business owners say they don’t want to pay a new BIA levy on their tax bills.

“Right now, I’m struggling to support (the concept),” said Helen VanSligtenhorst, owner of Harbour Bay Clothing on Front Street.

A downtown retailer for nine years, she said a strong grassroots effort is already organizing events like First Fridays that attract a lot of people. She’s not sure anything that requires a new levy would do better.

“How can a BIA speak for all of us?” VanSligtenhorst asked. “I feel there’s a false sense of urgency to do this when we’ve been doing OK just the way we are.

“Let’s just get more information and think about it.”

John Mallon

No one wants a new levy for a BIA “shoved down their throats,” said John Mallon, owner of Ups N’ Downs on Front Street the past 26 years.

Mallon was chairman of the last BIA in downtown Sarnia when it folded in the 1990s due to a lack of funding.

He said he agreed to sit on a steering committee with Coutu, Coun. Nathan Colquhoun and a handful of other business people interested in forming a new BIA because he could add his voice of experience.

“I am hearing opinions on both sides and I am remaining neutral,” said Mallon. “I’m not here to sell or condemn a BIA.”

He said Coutu and Colquhoun have shown strong initiative in getting a new organization off the ground but a lot of downtown business owners don’t buy into the benefits.

A preliminary meeting to float the idea several weeks ago didn’t include everyone and that may have created ill will, Mallon said.

“It’s important that everyone has a say in this and that all their questions are answered.”

Coutu said he plans a meeting for a small group of steering committee members on Sept. 10. At that time, he hopes to firm up a proposal that would ultimately be put to a vote among all property owners. Tenants with a lease agreement stipulating they pay taxes would also be eligible to vote.

He says about $90,000 per year could be generated through a special levy for a BIA.

“We think the levy would be $150 per $100,000 of commercial assessment,” Coutu said. “It’s not big dollars we’re talking about here.

Dave Duguay

“I don’t agree that downtown is thriving,” he added. “The bars are busy on First Friday but we need more that is family-oriented.”

Dave Duguay of the Blackwater Coffee Co. on Christina Streets, and Terri O’Brien of Feather Your Nest on Front Street, say they back Coutu and believe a BIA is overdue.

“I think there’s strong support for it,” said O’Brien. “Downtown is very diverse and there is a lot of merit to pooling our resources and having one voice.”

“All of us are here to make a living for our family and keep the downtown going,” said Duguay.

“Our downtown is starting to become a destination. It’s come so far in the last few years, so we need to push our message out there.”

Coun. George Vandenberg said he is talking to as many downtown business people as possible to gauge interest in a BIA.

“I’d say nine out of 10 don’t want it,” he said. “They say downtown is flourishing without it and they don’t want a new levy.”

But Vandenberg said he’ll speak to more people before forming his own opinion.

“Everyone has something to say about it,” he said.