A vibrant downtown creates business attraction for growth

Mona Mattei
By Mona Mattei
August 28th, 2012

Building a vibrant downtown core takes time but is completely worthwhile was the message shared with Grand Forks’ business owners last week.

In a presentation sponsored by the Grand Forks economic development committee, Barb Haynes from the Downtown Penticton Association (DPA) gave encouragement for local businesses to aim high.

Funded by a business improvement fee, the Penticton association got its start in 2000 with what Haynes called small steps. Today the group raises money through its activities, the annual fee, and grants for projects.

“I encourage you to move the conversation forward in bits and pieces. I know that in Penticton we have the funding there to do these tasks, but that comes through you as a community getting together to say what will this take? And what are we willing to pool together to make that resource available to move it forward,” said Haynes.

“There’s lots of formulas and opportunities that work. There are lots of communities that are in the same position as you looking for how to take that next step.”

Now, the DPA hosts a range of activities from planning events (street markets, concerts, beach cruise) throughout the year to managing communications strategies for marketing and even implementing safety and security around the city’s core. One of their annual events doubles up as a beautification project – creating graffiti art to become murals on the back side of businesses’ buildings.

“We’ve got about 40 some odd murals over the last three years. Some of them are really edgy, others are quite spectacular. They’re very different,” said Haynes. “What it’s done is it’s created this incredible walking space and walking tour that people do regularly.”

Their safety and security measures include a panhandling strategy, and anti-gang strategies, some targets that a smaller community like Grand Forks may not need, but worthwhile targets for business owners to recognize.

The efforts of the association in revitalizing a downtown threatened by big box stores have had some amazing benefits for Penticton, including a low vacancy rate for businesses.

“Penticton has the lowest vacancy rate for retail in the Thompson Okanagan right now. Because, we’ve really focused on trying to give a reason to come,” explained Haynes. “We need to stop focusing on filling the vacancies and we need to focus on, instead, a reason for people to want to be here. That is created through vibrancy. That is created through activity that you do as a community, that you work on as a community so people want to come.”

Ultimately, Haynes advised the people at the meeting to look at developing synergies between existing economic and business associations and to start small.

“The very first piece that started were recognizing that as a group of downtown businesses that they needed to have a voice, and there needed to be an opportunity to move some initiatives forward. So it was really pulling everyone together on some marketing,” said Haynes.

“From there it’s evolved into all kinds of other conversations. We didn’t start here, it’s where we are today, and it’s not where we’re going to be next year. You may have one idea… and maybe that’s the impetus to pull a strategy together.”

About 20 people including city councillors Gary Smith, Bob Kendel and mayor Brian Taylor as well as local business owners and the executive director of the Boundary Country Chamber of Commerce attended the session held on Tuesday, Aug. 21 at the Grand Forks Seniors Hall in City Park.