Stratford BIA budget includes levy hike

  • Business   Friday, February 11, 2022   Matt Harris

Businesses in Stratford’s downtown found out they’ll be faced with an increased levy in 2022 after the City Centre BIA tabled their draft budget in January.

Members in the business improvement area will see a three per cent increase to their annual tax rate, bringing the estimated collection of funds in at just under $300,000.  According to BIA Board Chair Pamela Coneybeare, the increase will help to offset creeping inflation rates.

“We had to plan for the rising operational and project costs that we all know are coming as a direct correlation to inflation rates here in Ontario,” she said. “We decided not to raise the levy in 2021, but we ran a small deficit last year so we knew that was not sustainable and was never meant to be a permanent stance. We did not increase the majority of items in our 2022 budget, and the conservative three per cent reflects an increase mostly to the items and fixed costs that we have little control over due to rising costs. To continue to deliver the programs and services our members and community receive, we need to keep a balanced budget.”

While the increased levy will collect a pretty penny, the BIA had over $320,000 in expenses a year ago. Coneybeare explained that came from some bigger projects that were on the books for 2021 and are costs that won’t be repeated.

“We had some funds set aside in 2021 for bigger projects, like rebranding and a new website that are currently underway,” she said. “These projects, once complete, do not need to be repeated on an annual basis, so we did not need to carry those expenses over in 2022. Some of those costs are covered by grants that we were awarded but have not received in full yet. These additional revenue sources are reflected in our draft budget but not included in the $299,000 tax levy and help us to complete special projects throughout the year, but we don’t always know exactly when they will arrive or the amount of these funds at the beginning of the year. So some discrepancies occur related to that as well. We also incurred some one-time costs last year related to transitioning our staff members to full-time employees from contract.”

She said there were two full time and one part-time staff that made the transition to become staff employees.

Among the items outlined in the budget is $9,300 set aside by the BIA for levy refunds for businesses that close. Coneybeare said this is a yearly inclusion in their budget and said they are hoping for a repeat of the recent trend where the downtown business core was a net-positive in terms of growth.

“This item is in the budget every year, and with over 300 businesses it is normal and predictable that multiple businesses in our catchment will either relocate, retire or close in any given year, and sometimes that results in levy refunds,” she said. “We did increase this item slightly for 2022 as a precaution, but we actually had more businesses open than close in our downtown during 2020/21 – I think almost twice as many.”

With plenty of challenges ahead, Coneybeare said the BIA has several key areas they would like to address in 2022, including more accessible parking, increased bicycle-friendly areas, public washrooms, year-round promotions and where to find information about business programs, funding and policies that impact business operations and set-up.

“We serve a diverse membership from various sectors and customer needs,” she said. “Our mandate as a BIA is to beautify our downtown, encourage more use of our businesses by residents and visitors, help develop programs that will benefit our members and work collaboratively with other organizations and City officials while maintaining Downtown Stratford’s position as a unique place to work, live, shop and visit.”

Saying they been working with groups like Destination Stratford, city officials, Invest Stratford, the Stratford Perth Business Centre, RT04 and more on creating valuable programming and assets and plan to continue those partnerships in the coming year.

“Our popular ‘Bucks Back’ program will return this spring, which encourages shopping downtown when business is usually slowest,” Coneybeare said. “We’ll continue to improve and build on the Al Fresco project, encouraging people to dine outdoors. We’ll have new bike infrastructure installed downtown this spring as well. We will be launching a new website this year which will help customers connect with downtown business as well as help our businesses find important resources and updates that they need.”

One last item she highlighted was a plan to explore new public art opportunities to help activate the downtown area, saying they are looking forward to working with My Main Street – a Federal Economic Development program which will provide downtown Stratford with a dedicated ambassador to complete important market research and data analysis, assist with economic recovery as well as provide funding to several member businesses.

Taking any further pandemic restrictions out of the equation, Coneybeare said they’re hoping both community members and visitors to Stratford help support the BIA’s members in any way they can.

“Ordering take-out, shopping online, sign-up for virtual classes – these methods of engaging with a small business that is trying something new may take a bit longer or might not be the same as ordering something online from a huge global company,” she said. “Be patient – understanding and kindness goes a long way these days. It make take more effort but our small businesses appreciate it so much and have done an amazing job at pivoting to continue to serve their customers in new ways.”