Mike Comstock: Local merchants are dying out

Is Toronto still a city of neighbourhoods? That was one of the mottos that seemed to fit, at least, I had hope that it was true. I get the idea of a giant metropolis which is made up of more personable small towns, neighbourhoods that you can know and understand. Over the years I have had the pleasure of living in several of Toronto’s neighbourhoods. I like the idea that there is a neighbourhood school, a park, a hockey team of local kids, your fire station and some name for this place. You see neighbours at a park, a bank, a group of shops or a restaurant that seems to be a meeting place. It is sometimes helpful that you can find out what your kids are up to from the neighbours, and sometimes scary.

In most of our neighbourhoods the local group of shops are represented by a Business Improvement Area (BIA). I personally witnessed Alex Ling of Bloor West Village BIA remind David Miller as councilor and as mayor that the commercial members of the community want the same things for the community as the residents. The city should work with the BIAs. The difference between residential and commercial sectors in a neighbourhood is that the businesses don’t vote, pay four to five times as much property tax and are often short changed for services. In a healthy, quality neighbourhood you won’t have empty stores; it requires both successful retail shops and appealing residential streets. I would hope at least some candidates in this fall’s election will have the IQ to mention that these two members of the community want and need the same things.

Like all Torontonians, the business community is concerned by the rash of violent, gun-related crimes that has plagued our city. The Jane Creba shooting made this all too clear, as it took place in front of a store in one of Toronto’s busiest commercial districts. This shooting severely traumatized the store’s employees, who were left to deal with the aftermath virtually on their own.

The Toronto Association of BIAs (TABIA) created a Task Force on Crime: Prevention and Solutions in response. It was chaired by Neil Wright of the Harbord St. BIA, and has just released survey results from BIAs across the city.

The report states, “Our members have told us that they want to take steps to make business districts more secure, and they also want to help troubled youths make positive changes in their own lives so that they won’t choose to get involved in criminal activities. According to our membership survey conducted in March, our members expressed strong support for four initiatives: 1. mounting security cameras in public locations; 2. supporting local programs to give youth opportunities for worthwhile jobs and community involvement; 3. forging strong links with other community groups and 4. lobbying government for stricter crime legislation enforcement.”

The top survey responses were for “More foot patrol police in business neighbourhoods,” with a vote of 96%. It was followed by, “City, police and provincial crime and safety committees informing TABIA with updated information” at 94%. And, “Active business support of youth development/employment initiatives in city schools, communities and faith-based church organizations, at 86%” These items speak to a desire of the local businesses to become more directly involved with the residential community. They also ask that the police work more directly with them and help develop the commercial sector as eyes on the street for the police.

One theme that comes up again and again is the thought that we should be providing more activities for youngsters and teens within the community. This is the age when they first venture outside their family. At that age in which socializing and peers becomes so important, it would be nice to also have a positive image of your neighbourhood. It is necessary for kids to see that many people care about the public places, the parks, shops and restaurants, and enjoy the neighbourhood.

The local merchant, however, is dying out. The vast majority of retail dollars now goes to the mall, big box and power centre. Many local businesses are chain locations with marginal operations that only pay wages and few dollars more. Of course, if you own 10 or 15 marginally profitable locations, it works out well for you. This isn’t really a neighbourhood business. Small stores that work usually have owner-operators and are well integrated, well known to local residents.

But all businesses pay the same punishing commercial tax rate. There are no breaks for neighbourhood business. Toronto’s planning supports the creation of big box retail though it decreases the number of retail jobs and decreases the commercial tax base. Size works against the small neighbourhood merchant. Property tax is often 50% of the cost of renting a small retail store. If you are still reading this column you are certainly in the upper half of the IQ scale. This means most politicians won’t have gotten this far. So let‘s see if one of them thinks about the whole neighbourhood, just once during the fall election.