6 min

Rainbow reluctance

How gay will an expanded Davie BIA be?

THE NUMBERS WILL DECIDE: The gay president of the Davie Village BIA is backing a proposal to expand its boundaries. A new, larger West End BIA could tackle common issues, says Vince Marino. But will i Credit: James Loewen Photo

Denman St business owners and managers may be willing to join an expanded Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA), but some seem reluctant to embrace the BIA’s gay trappings.

Harry Sturhahn, owner of Central on Denman, doesn’t want the Village’s rainbow banners to fly on his street.

“It’s a different market, a different age group. I’m just talking as a business owner. I think to put everyone into one demographic is a huge mistake,” says Sturhahn, who is gay.

“I think the gay cultural distinctiveness of Davie Village could be enhanced without the pink bus stops and the flags,” he adds.

“I think that would be cool,” counters Delany’s manager Bertram Scott, who is all for bringing the rainbow banners to Denman St. “For a lot of people, it’s a signifier that it’s a gay-friendly place-I can be comfortable here, I’m not going to have any hassles and if I do, there are people who are going to back me up,” he says.

Denman businesses are comfortable with the Davie Village’s gay roots, Scott maintains. “The Pride Parade, as it stands, goes right down Denman. A lot of the businesses have huge gay clienteles. They’re owned by gay people or managed by gay people such as myself.”

The prospect of expanding the Davie Village BIA was first introduced last year. At its annual general meeting in September, the BIA passed a resolution to “engage and consult” the merchants and property owners along Denman and lower Robson Sts “for the purpose of exploring” the formation of a new, all-encompassing West End BIA.

“You can accomplish a whole lot more with a larger area and a larger budget,” BIA Executive Director Lyn Hellyar told Xtra West at the time.

Carole Nicholson, owner of Rubber Rainbow Condom Co, welcomes the potential extension of banners and tree lights from the Davie Village to Denman and lower Robson. In addition to visually linking the West End as a “walk-about” neighbourhood, it would cheer up Denman, says Nicholson.

“Happy and light go hand in hand. It just makes your heart sing even if you’re having the most depressing, grief-filled day.”

Denman was once considered Vancouver’s gay neighbourhood, she notes.

On Davie St, Jim Deva of Little Sister’s says he is “torn” on the banner issue.

“It isn’t just a matter of putting a rainbow up. It’s honouring the rainbow, advertising in gay media, promoting the community as a destination. If the businesses on Denman St have that kind of vision, well, more power to them,” says Deva.

Davie Village BIA President Vince Marino says numbers will decide the banner and other issues. Three outreach meetings are scheduled before this year’s annual general meeting on Sep 29.

A city coordinator will determine at that meeting whether or not there is enough interest in expansion to proceed with a vote by potential members. A new BIA will proceed if at least 30 percent of landowners and businesses vote in favour of it.

If an expanded BIA proceeds, Marino says it will likely operate as an umbrella group, with committees for each distinct area operating with some autonomy on issues like banners. Denman St businesses may opt to create their own unique banner design, he notes.

An expanded BIA would tackle common issues such as safety and security, increasing tourism and zoning, he adds.

“Having that much voice at city hall is awesome,” says Marino.

“We spend a lot of energy on three blocks. That energy could be shared with everyone,” says Hellyar, adding that her office often gets calls from businesses outside BIA borders.

Sturhahn says maintaining some independence for the distinctive streets is ideal.

“Denman is much older. Davie Village tends to be more transient, more service-industry oriented. Both share a gay clientele, which is what we have in common,” he says.

Scott agrees the two streets draw different crowds. “It’s a bit more pastoral, if you will, down here. It’s a little quieter, we’re closer to the park.”

Deva initially opposed expansion, concerned the Davie Village’s gay roots could be diluted.

“I have been assured by most of the people on the BIA board that they have every intention of maintaining our vibrancy in the Village” and protecting it in the BIA’s charter, says Deva.

Alan Herbert is not convinced. The former city councillor and planner expressed concern last year that expansion might dilute the Village’s unique gay character.

“If it’s just a land grab, don’t bother,” Herbert told Xtra West last February. “If it’s truly a way to strengthen and build on the Village and its gay character, then go for it.”

Hellyar admits that “a lot of merchants on Denman St don’t want pink bus stops and Pride flags.”

But she promises the Pride flags will keep flying in the Village, even under a new West End BIA. “We really identify with the Joe Average sun face and the Pride flag. Nobody has any intention of changing that,” she told Xtra West last September.

Herbert says the Davie Village BIA could improve its lot without expanding.

Davie St has a “uniqueness” that is still not recognized by everyone at city hall, he says. “There needs to be some special status accorded.”

Giving bars and clubs in the Village recognition through bylaws similar to those in the Granville Entertainment District would be a good start, he suggests.

Promoting the Village as a gay entertainment destination makes sense, says former Davie Village BIA President Randy Atkinson. But a larger BIA will have access to a bigger budget to advertise itself accordingly, he points out.

“The individual business doesn’t have the money to market itself internationally,” he says.

“When I was with the BIA, the majority of businesses on Denman were aware the gay community provides a basis of their business in the winter,” continues Atkinson, who envisions an expanded BIA as “a greater inclusive neighbourhood.”

He says it is possible to maintain and enhance the Village’s uniqueness with a bigger BIA.

Deva agrees. “I think we need more than just three-and-a-half blocks because we’re playing against the Robson St BIA which is enormous, and the Downtown Vancouver BIA which is another enormous BIA. I think if we’re going to have some punch and stand up to them and say that we’re unique and different in the West End, we need a big, vibrant BIA to do that.”

Hellyar says some responsibility to ensure the BIA’s queer roots remain undiluted lies with business owners, too.

Though most Davie Village merchants “know the dollar value of that gay vibrancy,” says Deva, he agrees gay businesses must “remain vigilant.”

“It’s individual business owners who have to get on the [BIA] board,” he says. “They have to project their ideas. They can’t sit back and think the BIA is going to project the Village, even in the small three-and-a-half block area.

“I think the Mardi Gras is a perfect example of that,” Deva continues. “All the gay bars got together outside of the BIA structure, but they all had something in common.”

Marketing is one area everyone agrees could use improvement.

However, Sturhahn, who ran Hamburger Mary’s on Davie for four years in the 1980s, suggests Davie and Denman be marketed differently.

“I know that here, the clientele is very different from what it is up there. And anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves,” says Sturhahn.

Mosi Alvard, co-owner of Olympia on Denman St for 17 years, invited Denman business owners to his restaurant for a meeting in February to discuss forming through their own BIA or joining the expanded BIA. Alvard says property taxes are a hot issue for him and other owners.

“When we started here, we paid $800 property tax. Now I’m paying over $2,000,” says Alvard. Other Denman businesses echo this concern to Xtra West, noting an increasing number of vacant shops. Alvard says Denman’s current appearance belies his belief that it is “the best street in the world.”

“Visually, this spot has been utterly neglected,” Nicholson agrees. She is “very impressed” with how the Davie Village BIA has presented and represented its neighbourhood. “I would just be delighted for all of us to be an association.”

One pressing issue facing Davie and Denman business owners is the growing number of homeless people on the streets. A larger BIA could address this in a unique, West End way, Deva suggests.

“How we cope with that works much better if people work together to deal with that problem because it’s a persistent problem throughout the West End. I think the [Davie Village] BIA is dealing with it in a very compassionate way, a very different way than other BIAs. I believe the entire West End needs to deal with it in that way,” Deva says.

The Davie Village BIA recently surveyed potential and current members on the prospect of expansion. “We didn’t get very many responses back that were negative towards it,” says Hellyar.