In what was considered perhaps the largest gathering of Business Improvement Association members in more than a decade, about 30 local merchants and restaurant owners met Tuesday evening to discuss revitalizing the downtown core.
And after two hours, and much discussion, members saw five new committees formed, a date set for a budget meeting and, in general, a more focused association ready to spring into action and reclaim business most merchants on hand admitted they have been losing to Wal-Mart.
“The whole downtown is at a crossroads,” BIA vice-chair Larry Syrovy (Rainy Lake Hotel) told those on hand for the general meeting at the Civic Centre.
“We have a new force to consider in the marketplace—Wal-Mart,” he added. “Downtown is no longer the only retail area. It’s one of the retail areas. Wal-Mart has more retail square footage than the entire downtown combined.
“The downtown needs substantial changes, and that’s why we’ve asked you here today.”
BIA director Guy Donaldson (Robin’s Donuts) noted his previous impression of the BIA was that its members often got caught up talking about things—without getting much done. He said when he went to a BIA meeting 10 years ago, they were talking about flags and parking.
“We’re still talking about flags and parking,” he remarked.
“Everything’s a fight,” echoed Doug Anderson (Betty’s).
“The BIA should be taking more of a leadership role, be proactive,” said Donaldson, suggesting, for instance, that those who have concerns about parking should sit on a parking committee, which then would report to the BIA’s board of directors.
“We need to have people willing to step up to the plate,” agreed director Connie Cuthbertson (Northwoods Gallery & Gifts).
After discussions on several topics those on hand felt were important to the downtown core, including parking, taxes, the need for a new co-ordinator (a replacement for Marla Simpson still hasn’t been found), the BIA’s finances and the transparency of its expenses, as well as ways to attract consumers back downtown, BIA members agreed to co-ordinate their efforts to try and strengthen the downtown by striking a number of committees.
One such committee will address parking space and the possibility of meters. But clearly, the committee will have some work ahead of it as downtown business owners seemed split on the issue.
Ted DeBenetti (A Buck or Two) said he didn’t want to see parking meters downtown as they would be one more “burden” to storeowners as a possible detriment to customer traffic.
Alan Tibbetts (H&R Block), also president of the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, said he felt there should be a parking lot built near the downtown area to accommodate 200-300 vehicles.
Achour Cheblaoui (La Flambée) said he’d like to see parking meters, as every other community seems to have them. He also noted too many parking spots downtown are taken up by business owners and employees.
Having meters would ensure tourists have a place to park during the summer, too, he noted.
This committee, like all the others, will report back to the BIA’s board of directors in the future.
A second committee will look at creating BIA-wide promotions to boost traffic. DeBenetti noted more merchants should stay open after 5 or 6 p.m. in order to compete with Wal-Mart, adding he’s seen enough sales in the evening hours to justify staying open.
Derek Jackson (Sight & Sound) noted all BIA retail businesses should consider staying open one night a week—as long as it was the same night and was well-promoted.
Cuthbertson said staying open Sundays and Friday evenings for half the year has seen a great response, especially during the tourist season.
Cheblaoui suggested a daily draw for gift certificates at downtown businesses possibly would get people flocking to the downtown while DeBenetti noted he’d like to see more cross-promotions, like being able to turn in a receipt that proved you shopped at one store to get a discount at another.
Syrovy said he’d like to see some sort of “customer loyalty” program in place.
Jackson added perhaps the BIA should even consider an “Air Miles” promotion, where customers would benefit from shopping at downtown businesses, or have a contest that customers could enter when they shop downtown, with a significant prize like a car up for grabs.
Sandra McNay (Masquerade Costume Rentals) suggested the popularity of garage sales detracts from business Saturday mornings during the summer, and so merchants should look into having more sidewalk sales to draw some of that crowd.
Another new committee specifically will take care of maintaining and getting new flags to decorate the downtown area for various events while another—a maintenance committee—will ensure BIA members are satisfied with matters such as street cleaning, snow removal, and lighting in the downtown area.
And yet another new committee is the marketing one. Doug Cain noted the BIA and local business community, in general, should look into getting money from Wal-Mart for marketing.
According to Cain, in other communities where Wal-Mart set up shop, the corporation gave out money to businesses to help them compete for customers.
He figured this could mean up to $500,000 should be coming the way of the BIA and Chamber businesses.
The marketing committee will look into contacting Wal-Mart and finding out if the business community here will be getting any such funds.
These committees will meet in the next week or so to discuss budget matters within their respective areas.
The BIA then will take this input into account when it holds its 2004 budget meeting May 5 at 5:45 p.m. at the Civic Centre.