The Davie Village rainbow banners will continue to fly, but in the wake of the dispute some West End residents and non-profit organizations are calling for a review of the Business Improvement Association (BIA) model to ensure greater accountability, transparency and community consultation.
“Right now the BIA has too much influence in the city and the neighbourhoods,” says Brent Granby, president of the West End Residents Association (WERA). “There needs to be a facilitative process for residents too, so that they can match the voice that the BIAs have in council and the community.”
Granby, who lives and works in the West End, calls BIAs “authoritarian” and says “the whole controversy over the banner is really symptomatic of that larger model that has been embraced by the city.”
Granby further stresses that an economically viable and culturally vibrant community can’t happen without collaboration between community businesses and its residents.
“To empower one group to be solely responsible for the economic wellbeing of a neighbourhood is a false dichotomy,” he says. “It is a model that maybe needs to be revisited and reviewed because I think there is a real problem in terms of accountability and transparency. Businesses are accountable to businesses in their areas and they’re not accountable to residents.”
BIAs are organizations made up of business and property owners. The first BIA in Canada began in Toronto in 1969 when a group of business people in the city’s west village area approached council seeking collective power to stabilize the economic climate and improve the appearance of their business district.
Following consultation between business owners and the city, the province of Ontario decided to pass legislation under the Municipal Act, giving municipalities the power to designate Business Improvement Areas.
In 1988, BC was the eighth province to enact BIA legislation, nearly 20 years after Ontario.
Legislation for Vancouver’s BIAs is contained in Section 456 of the Vancouver Charter, a set of laws enacted by the province to regulate how Vancouver is governed, provides services and holds elections.
While BIA legislation does outline bylaws and levy decrees, nowhere under Part XXI: Business Improvement Areas or Part XXIV: Local Improvements does it acknowledge resident rights or the protection of community identity in the hands of a BIA.
“BIAs promote business areas. As a part of business promoting, they are branding the businesses collectively. They are not branding the community or neighbourhood. BIAs don’t determine community identity,” argues Peter Vaisbord, BIA coordinator for the city of Vancouver.
Vaisbord thinks amending the Vancouver Charter to address neighbourhood identity and community input would be irrelevant since BIAs are only supposed to be concerned with area beautification and not overall community identity.
Still, Vaisbord acknowledges that community input does influence BIA decisions, even though city legislation states that only property and business owners can hold membership and voting rights in the BIA.
“All BIAs take into account the needs of the people that live and shop in their area,” Vaisbord says, “but they [the residents] don’t have a formal right to vote in a BIA.
“Nor does a BIA have a right to vote in a resident association or community group,” he adds.
BIAs have a right to decide how to beautify their business districts because the funds for the beautification programs — like rainbow or other banners in the Davie Village — come from tax levies collected from BIA members; not area residents, Vaisbord continues.
But there’s nothing stopping community members or resident associations from funding their own banner programs, he notes. Community members can also join BIA committees to voice their concerns to the BIA, he adds.
Granby admits that the West End Business Improvement Association has invited WERA to attend BIA meetings in the past, but says WERA declined, stating it wasn’t worth the organization’s time to participate without any voting rights.
Kyle Rae, a gay Toronto city councillor and chair of the city’s economic development committee, says the recent rainbow banner dispute in the gay Village stems from the old Davie Village BIA’s expansion into a West End BIA, and the resulting amalgamation of different business districts.
“It’s all about the problem of amalgamation because it [the Davie Village BIA] got watered down in the larger BIA,” he says.
Still, he echoes Vaisbord on the BIA’s right to choose banners in its own district.
“It’s the BIA that paid for those [rainbow banners],” says Rae. “They’ve paid for it and they’ve done it. It’s all fine and dandy for the residents to say, ‘We don’t like it’ but they don’t pay into it.”
But if dollars and cents give the BIA authority to make decisions that affect community, then taxpayers should have more say then they do, suggests Granby.
Former city councillor Alan Herbert agrees that the community needs a voice on the BIA and says the Davie Village’s identity must always be protected and honoured.
“The banners are important, they are our identity,” he says.
“This is not just a BIA; this is one like Chinatown,” he continues, referring to Chinatown’s unique cultural identity.
The gay village has its own “remarkable history” and distinct identity that any BIA with jurisdiction in the district must acknowledge and preserve, he stresses.
Herbert believes more collaboration between business owners and the community is needed to ensure the Davie Village’s community identity is not lost in the shuffle of business and bureaucracy.
He suggests the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) could be the voice of the people regarding concerns with the BIA.
“If the gay community is interested in having its history preserved then they will have to do it themselves,” he says.
Pride Society president John Boychuk doesn’t think the VPS would be the best organization to represent West End residents in WEBIA affairs. “We are a social organization that puts on a parade and festival,” he says. But he is in favour of creating a neighborhood association to better represent community needs at the BIA table.
Boychuk, a member of both the WEBIA and the Mount Pleasant BIA and past president of the Davie Village BIA, says that while community input “shouldn’t be as evenly weighted” the community does need a greater voice in BIA decision-making.
“I think it’s a good idea. There should be some consultation, there should be some representation.”
Boychuk says he’d like to see an appointed community liaison sit on the WEBIA board of directors and have one vote.
Gay city councillor Tim Stevenson says incorporating community voice at the BIA table is innovative and worth looking into.
“It seems to me that this is possible and it’s a new way of thinking.” Stevenson, who sits on council with Vision Vancouver, doesn’t think BIAs would necessarily be opposed to greater community input, but says they just haven’t been structured to have it influence their decision-making process.
“These have been traditional business associations,” he points out. “I don’t think many have thought about what kind of role the community would play. The idea of involving the community hasn’t been uppermost in their mind.” But Stevenson says the banner dispute apparently forced the WEBIA to take a closer look at the vested interest the gay community has in the Davie Village’s identity.
“If BIAs can see that the community is involved, they can also enhance their business. If the BIAs don’t take notice, they do that at their own peril,” he adds.
WEBIA executive director Lyn Hellyar says BIA members — business and property owners — should have authority over the visual identity of a BIA area.
Community input is and always has been important to the WEBIA, she says, adding that the organization does listen to the community. But in terms of influence on the board, Hellyar says the community should have “no more [voice] than they currently have.”
When asked if she thinks a community representative should sit on the BIA board, Hellyar says, “We have no control over the legislation that governs BIAs, so there is really no answer to that question.”
But the WEBIA will soon have applications on its website for associate members, she notes.
Vaisbord confirms that associate members can form committees without voting rights that can make recommendations to the board. Associate membership is open to residents outside of the business community, he explains.
It’s up to a BIA to decide to open the application process to non-business owners, he adds.
Hellyar says she is working on the initiative, but notes there are bylaws that must be changed before her plan for associate membership can be realized. Hellyar says her vision for the WEBIA is clear: a “BIA that involves all the stakeholders in the strategic planning for a thriving, healthy and vibrant business community in the West End.”
But in order for a vibrant and healthy business community to blossom, community members like Granby seem adamant that partnership and consultation between community and businesses is vital.
“Our interests are not separate,” he insists.
Boychuk agrees and asks the proverbial question: “Is it the business that creates the village or is it the people that create the village?”
Many in the community say both, and suggest that the BIA model be reviewed to do just that.