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Commercial areas, like downtowns, urban villages and mainstreets, have faced tremendous stress over the last few years and continue to face hardships due to trends such as remote/hybrid work and inflation. But these areas remain vital to regional economies, which means collaborative approaches between Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) and regional economic development organizations are needed to help ensure they thrive through these post-pandemic changes.

This was the central message of SIPP Director of Economic Development Dallas Gislason’s keynote to the Business Improvement Areas of B.C. (BIABC) Conference in Victoria on May 3.

“Commercial areas do things that other areas (like residential-only neighbourhoods) do not,” Gislason said in his presentation BIAs in the Regional Post-Pandemic Prosperity Playbook. “They offer a density of rich cultural and culinary experiences, unique retail experiences and places for valuable unexpected or impromptu connections with acquaintances. The magic of serendipity can never strike from the home office!”

“In post-pandemic environments,” he added, “my argument is that commercial areas are still super relevant and will remain so, but that there are some key themes that will make them more adaptable to these new realities. The first is around place-based innovation in the 21st century. Research has proven that team proximity is super important to achieving higher rates of innovation in firms, and not just that, their proximity to other firms also improves their outcomes — we call these the externalities of proximity. And commercial areas are still the right place for this to happen. We just need to keep investing in cultural amenities and facilities like co-working that will attract and engage the workforce. 

This includes making commercial areas more adaptable to makers, artists and craftspeople, perhaps even embedded into traditional office environments. This may mean changing land uses and allowing more flexibility in the types of work taking place on these sites. 

The second thing we can do in our commercial areas, says Gislason, is to embrace Live/Work by building people-centric amenities that act as magnets to people of all backgrounds. This means more people living in downtowns and using the “city” as their living room through amazing cultural events, amenities and culinary experiences. In some cases, this may include converting offices to residential mixed-use.

The third fundamental aspect to revitalizing and creating vibrant, successful commercial districts is the need for quality locally-owned businesses across the retail and service mix. (Not that the odd chain store isn’t appreciated, but what differentiates downtowns and mainstreets from shopping malls is their unique local offerings.)

“A major challenge in Canada is our top-heavy demographic structure meaning a lot of mom n’ pop businesses may need to close if they cannot find buyers,” says Gislason. “One emerging trend is the use of intermediaries (like pension funds) to facilitate employee-ownership succession plans. Keeping local ownership and equity in our regional economies goes a long way to closing the ‘K shaped’ rebound (extreme winners and extreme losers) of the pandemic. 

Whatever happens in and to our downtowns, Gislason noted we should all take comfort in the leadership of BIAs such as the DVBA and Sidney BIA and others that are helping their members make these adjustments. 

“Whatever challenges these areas face,” he said, “they’ll come out strong on the other side.”