Indicators are positive for downtown Burlington, businesses heard at this year’s Annual General Meeting of the Burlington Downtown Business Association. Business turnover and vacancy rates are low, the downtown continues to be an attractive place for residential and mixed use developments, the BDBA has a business recruitment specialist to bring businesses downtown, and supports over a dozen BDBA sponsored or partnered events aimed at bringing feet on the street.
Other highlights shared at the AGM include increased parking supply, improvements to the parking meters, a budget increase of 1.9% for 2017, and an update to the strategic plan.
These are outlined in more detail below.
I serve as the council representative on the BDBA, and the Downtown Parking Committee, which operates parking downtown. You can view my development update to the AGM here: Councillor’s Update
Membership changes and vacancy rate:
The BDBA comprises 435 commercial property owners and businesses within a defined boundary downtown, which roughly runs between Maple and Torrance and up Brant St to Ghent (excluding the residential areas of St. Luke’s and Wellington.) The membership breakdown is:
- 36% service sector
- 34% professional sector
- 15% restaurants, eateries and other members of the hospitality sector
- 15% retailers
There are constant changes to the BDBA membership. The BDBA tracks new entries every week to account for those businesses that have either closed or left the downtown. The reason for tracking membership changes is to answer the central question “are we healthy”?
There is no one measure that determines if a business community is healthy or not, but there are industry standards commonly used to track the relative health of downtowns across Ontario. These are “churn rates” and “vacancy rates.”
Generally speaking the rate of “churn” is the total of all businesses that have both entered and exited in a given year as a percentage of the overall membership. A 15-20% “churn rate” is a red flag, indicative of a volatile business environment.
The churn rate for downtown Burlington in 2016 was approximately 8%. This is the lowest it has been in eight years and is a good sign especially for an association that is primarily focused on business retention.
The “vacancy rate” is a numerical value calculated as a percentage of all available commercial spaces versus those occupied by tenants. In 2016, the downtown vacancy rate was approximately 7%, a decrease from 2012 when the vacancy rate was 11.2%. By comparison, based on information posted by the Burlington Economic Development Corporation, the city-wide vacancy rate for office space was 24%, and for industrial space 4.6%. (Data was not available for retail vacancy rates).
Until 2015 most of the vacant space was concentrated in three aging commercial plazas. One has since been demolished (Tudor Square at Caroline & John), one is under new ownership and is 85% occupied, and the third has seen a slow but steady increase in commercial tenancy by 15% over the last three years.
In the last five years, the retail sector has decreased 2% and all other sectors have seen a modest increase, topped by personal services at 8%.
Downtown continues to be an attractive place to redevelop and build both residential and commercial/mixed use projects. There are roughly 22 sites within the downtown core in various stages of redevelopment, from known land assembly to active build sites. This brings jobs and population downtown, which helps our businesses.
The downtown is designated an urban growth centre, with a provincially mandated density target of 200 people or jobs by 2031. We are about 74% of the way there, according to city planning staff analysis done in 2015 for the ADI Martha/Lakeshore proposed development (Page 31, Section 7.6).
See my powerpoint on development presented at the AGM here: Development update The presentation also includes response from businesses and customers on the Free P! in December program (detailed below).
BDBA members also heard about changes coming to the parking meters. We’ve received numerous complaints on a range of matters, from screen visibility to slow connection times. As someone who pays for parking downtown, I have found our machines to be the most difficult machines I’ve ever used in any city.
The primary reason for installing the parking machines was to offer features including payment by credit card, and adding time via a mobile phone or computer, eliminating the need to leave an activity to add coins to a meter. Twenty minutes of free parking is added to the purchase time. In addition, the “pay-by-plate” system allows residents to make one payment assigned to their license plate and move throughout the downtown on the same payment.
Parking Services Review
The Downtown Parking Committee (on which I serve alongside downtown residents, tourism, transportation staff, and the executive director of the BDBA) hired Pier 8 to review and make recommendations to improve parking services and marketing over the three-year horizon of 2018-2021. Some of the short and longer-term recommendations from the report include:
- An enhanced parking toolkit that simplifies the parking options and parking rules with easy messaging, easy mapping and key bullet points
- New “SKIN” for the parking machines to simplify the instructions, clearly state when free parking is available, and how the 20 minutes of free courtesy time is applied
- Digital signage on our surface lots so people avoid circling lots to find a space only to discover the lot is full. An example of this signage is at the parking garage on Locust St. To assist with the signage, parking “pucks” are being installed at all city lots and on-street spaces. This will allow us to track parking usage in real time, and also work with a mobile application and digital signs to direct people to available parking.
Review the Parking Powerpoint
More parking East of John Street, and elsewhere
Our public parking assets are not evenly distributed throughout the downtown, and the DPC has clearly heard the need for additional parking East of Brant St, especially to compensate for lost spaces as a result of the completion of the first leg of the Elgin Promenade on the northern edge of the parking lot of Village Square between Pearl Street and Elizabeth Street.
In advance of Phase I construction, parking services added 11 additional parking spaces to the Elizabeth Street surface lot and two new on-street spaces near The Martini House to make up for the seven spaces lost to reconstruction. Further, the DPC has removed permit holders from the lot adjacent to the promenade to free up this lot for daily customers only.
The BDBA also worked with private property owners in the immediate area who offer free public parking evenings and weekends in the lot north of the Ukrainian church, and the lot facing John St north of the office building across from Village Square.
Finally, some parking stalls on-street have been remarked and reduced in size to reflect more compact vehicles. This has added four parking spaces on Brant St, two on Pearl and two on Ghent.
The BDBA and the DPC are reviewing the Free P! program for the month of December. Parking is free on-street and in the lots weekdays throughout December, to encourage visitors and shoppers during the Christmas season. No changes are proposed to free parking on weekends, holidays, and after 6pm to 9am.
Some businesses have said their customers find it harder to find parking in December, and that permit holders abuse the program by taking up spots close to Brant St rather than parking further away in their assigned lots. Should we scrap Free P! in December, keep it or modify it to reduce abuses? Give us your thoughts by filling out the survey here: Free P survey
2017 BDBA Budget
The primary source of funding for the BDBA is a levy on all 435 businesses within the BDBA boundaries. The budget is reviewed annually by members at the AGM, before being presented to Burlington City Council for approval. (The city collects the levy on behalf of the BDBA).
The membership levy in 2016 was $728,000 and the levy for 2017 is $741,900, representing a 1.9% increase. That translates into $238 for every $100,000 of commercial property value assessment, an increase of $17 from 2016.
The BDBA also generates revenue from sponsorships for BDBA-run events (the 2017 target is $25,000). Events include the Downtown Jazz Festival (in partnership with the Burlington Performing Arts Centre), Taste of Burlington, Festival of Lights, Makers Market, the Burlington Sound of Music Festival and Comedy Fest.
In terms of expenses, the human resources, bookkeeping and auditing expenses decreased by 2% over last year; the uncollectable taxes and write-offs increased 4% and the Customer Attraction-Marketing portfolio increased by 4%.
The BDBA is contributing $10,000 per year (up to $50,000) to the Elgin Street Promenade.
A budget summary is available here: Budget-slide
The BDBA is continuing the contract of a Business Recruitment Specialist to attract businesses to the downtown, as well as a member engagement specialist, to offer advice, networking and other services to business members. The board is also revising its 4-year strategic plan for the overall health and future planning of the downtown. The budget for all three items is $95,000.
The BDBA’s strategic plan is based on four pillars:
- Customer Attraction: developing programs designed to increase the number and frequency of patrons to the downtown, and encourage sustained foot traffic;
- Member Engagement: increase participation by businesses in the work of the BDBA, as well as educate and provide opportunities for businesses to meet and learn from each other;
- Infrastructure Improvement: invest in capital projects that enhance the look and feel of the public realm downtown (for example, the hanging baskets in summer, the Christmas lights in winter);
- Stakeholder Relations: work with community partners to deliver joint ventures that enrich the downtown experience.
My Take: The downtown is healthy and continues to improve each year as an attractive place to live, work, play and develop. This is not accidental but a result of the combined efforts of many stakeholders. The city of Burlington, the BDBA, DPC, our businesses and our visitors make a significant contribution to the health of the downtown. Vacancy and turnover rates are lower than elsewhere in the city, below industry benchmarks, and have decreased over time. There’s more to see and do each year in our downtown, thanks to new and growing events that are either BDBA sponsored or partnered. And there is more parking, with steps being taken to make the parking experience a seamless and easy “non experience.” Thanks to all the business members who volunteer their time to serve on the BDBA board and various committees, and to all the staff at the BDBA and various city departments who serve us so well.