Vanishing Vanhattan: Which candidates have the right ideas when it comes to our local economy and small businesses?
Pete Fry: The City needs to realize that the types of development approved by council are at times at odds with the needs of local communities, small businesses and the residents who work in them and support them. Not opposed to such things as a living wage but introducing or enforcing a living wage is really the purview of the Province, but finding ways to reduce the burden placed on businesses by the City itself (permit delays, high transaction costs, hidden red tape) could open the door for wage increases. Pete has spent a lot of time travelling to other cities over the past year looking at the successful policies and strategies that could be explored here too.
In general, if I can offer what I believe are summaries of their overarching themes.
Audrey Seigl (COPE) government needs to play a more active role in tackling affordability, wages being of primary concern (as in increasing them) but small businesses that play meaningful roles in communities are also in need of support. We shouldn't just be OK with them being displaced because of rising land values. She also emphasized the unique perspective she would bring to council as the first aboriginal woman elected to that position, her family has cared for these lands for millennia. Social justice, inclusion, and affordability were threaded throughout the various answers and observations she provided.
George Affleck took a bit more of a laissez fair approach but specifically made note of what he perceives as a disconnect between the work of the Vancouver Economic Commission and the on-the-ground needs of small businesses (which he acknowledged along with the other candidates as comprising the majority of Vancouver's employment base). The market causes things to move around and we can't expect Vancouver to have some kind of centrally planned economy but we can better reconcile the pressures and opportunities Vancouver faces as a city that people around the world are excited to invest in, and own property in, and the needs of local populations in the city's various communities (where development invariably and inevitably takes place). I have to admit that his acknowledgement of the BIAs as a meaningful and under-utilized partner in local economic development struck a chord with me, being as I'm also Chair of the BIA Partnership's Local Economic Development Committee.
Pete Fry, a longtime small business owner himself, pointed to things like land-lift and the corresponding increase in taxes and higher lease rates that have made it increasingly difficult for locally owned (locally loved) independent small businesses to remain financially feasible. We can't just have a city of corporate chains. The current tower fetish and types of floor plates that accompany them directly contribute to this cycle of displacement, but the good news is that this is something the City can (and should) tackle in the interest of both mall businesses and the neighbourhoods who support them.
New York is currently going through this same kind of retail gentrification or retail displacement crisis. Here in Vancouver we have been raising alarm bells about the housing gentrification and displacement, it seems that retail is now starting to catch up to that conversation. Pete is arguably one of the most vocal of all candidates in this regard.
Andrea Reimer's several years of experience on Council was evident as she walked the audience through case studies and examples of how the City functions internally in relationship to the private sector, communities, and other levels of government. Councillor Reimer emphasized that this current government was already looking into such things as split assessments, taxing the commercial rate payers on ground floor for their commercial component and not the speculative residential value being generated above them (residential is the highest best use, highest value space, but commercial rate payers pay about 4 times more than residential rate payers so it's a double whammy if a property is assessed based on what kind of a condo tower it could be and then Ma and Pop Store ends up paying taxes based on that). She also acknowledged better connecting built form to the local economy (it's in the Vision Vancouver Platform, Growing an Economy for All Vancouver section) and the City's own goals around procurement and use of its real estate assets for community impact. She pushed back a bit on the tax question though and emphasized that businesses do use up more municipal infrastructure and services and therefore it is not wholly unfair that they pay more. Addressing the hot-spots and split assessments however remains important.
To listen to the full recording of the panel discussion visit the SFU CJSF SoundCloud account.
If you have any ideas about what the City can do to help local small businesses thrive share them below, and while you're at it why not write these candidates and let them know too.