What Are the Impacts on Local Economies?

Featuring Mark Garner, CEO and Executive Director, Downtown Yonge BIA; Bruce Katz, Director, Nowak Metro Finance Lab, Drexel University; Mary Moran, President & CEO, Calgary Economic Development; Patrick Sullivan, President & CEO, Halifax Chamber of Commerce; and Karen Wong, Co-founder & CEO, TakuLabs

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Wanted: small business ecology

If, as Jane Jacobs said, the “triumph of cities is the small,” the unfettered rise of big box stores during COVID-19 will be at the expense of local businesses and the downtowns they animate. To avoid a very long and painful recovery for local economies, a new set of tools is required, aimed at levelling the retail playing field. For example: master tenancies, new financial products and ownership models – all with protections, efficiencies and financial benefits built- in, in return for the critically important social, cultural and economic benefits they provide to the commons.

2. Back to school

Every effort is required to train the workforce for future skills, especially digital. Businesses need assistance and training on best practices. “We have so many things we need to unlearn – something as simple as handing somebody a receipt or whether or not to allow contactless tap on your pin pad,.” one panelist noted. Post-COVID, the businesses who “up” their digital game will be set up for success as they can build their existing revenue stream with supplemental, on-line income. It will also be about connectedness: “I’m not aiming to be 5G ready, I want to be 10G,” another panelist said.

3. Zoning to the rescue!

As businesses find ways to adapt to the “new normal,” planners can play a role in adapting regulations to respond to their needs. For example, expediting rezoning requests for businesses that need to shift from retail to functioning as a distribution centre.

4. It’s the cost of doing business

Most small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) operate with little to no buffer to weather economic shocks.  This is due, in large part, to the proportionally “staggering costs” that independent businesses shoulder – such as local property taxes. “We have to find a way to sustain the small independent – reduce their costs of doing business so they can put money back into the economy,” one panelist recommended. Another suggested the implementation of a program where building owners and leasees enter a profit-sharing agreement, so that fees go up as they become more successful.

5. From vacancy to vibrancy

Metrics used to assess the health of a downtown typically focus on vacancy rates. But this panel wanted to shift the focus to “vibrancy rates.” A downtown with high occupancy, but where the sidewalks roll up at 5 pm, does not make a resilient economy make. The recovery of the local economy must focus on a diversity of businesses – office, retail, entertainment, residencies and gathering places – each playing a crucial and equal role in a robust economy, and each requiring specific tools to ensure their resilience.