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Downtown drama this week lacks clarity or insight

This week's Market Squared talks about why this week's discussion about the downtown BIA at committee hit a sour note
2020 05 26 GT – Rooted Downtown Guelph 55 Wyndham Street – TB 55
Wyndham Street Troy Bridgeman/GuelphToday file photo

Petula Clark once sang that, “When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go Downtown.” She also sang that “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” but Downtown Guelph has its own specific set of troubles and cares at the moment.

Monday’s committee of the whole meeting was a timely, Festivus-style airing of grievances by some proprietors and building owners downtown. They poured out their anger at the Downtown Guelph Business Association on the virtual council table, and the core assumption was that their anger at the DGBA would lead to its inevitable end.

Anger at points of authority is not a new concept, but is that anger well placed, and is it built on something that can be resolved in a governance review? The issues mentioned by some of the delegates on Monday night, have nothing to do with governance, and everything to do with the perception that the DGBA runs the core with an iron hand, and uncontested free reign from the city.

Among the charges were the contention that the DGBA is not doing enough to promote downtown businesses, and that they’re unresponsive to member concerns. They blamed the board for not holding the Santa Claus Parade this year, for there being no continuous month’s long street closure for this year’s patio district, and for not stopping the closure of the Baker Street lot.

Some criticisms were kind of over-the-top. The suggestion that the DGBA should be responsible for cleaning up vacant storefronts is a bit of a reach. Sure, the DGBA can lean on building owners, but at end of the day the board has no jurisdiction to make a landlords clean up their property, or alternatively, break in and clean it themselves. Trespassing’s still technically a crime regardless of your intentions.

Now, the DGBA is not perfect. I’ve had beefs about their over-commitment to parking versus the promotion of transit, and one delegate was right pointing out this bizarre downtown wifi signal that your phone always tells you is there but you’re never able to access it, but I like to think my critiques are within the power of the DGBA to address.

True, it’s also within the power of the DGBA to address issues of staffing and overhead, but it’s hard to take critiques about salary seriously when it comes from a representative of the hospitality industry where people are often under-valued and underappreciated.

It’s also hard to accept the assertion that the work of promoting the downtown could be done by a small group of volunteers on their own time. Apparently, the work of promoting downtown Guelph is so important it demands dissolving the BIA, but it doesn’t demand that a competent staff be paid a fair wage to do it.

Perhaps if the critics could see the elusive financial statements for the DGBA, they would change their minds. At least of couple of delegates talked about the difficulties of getting the board’s books, almost like no one wanted them to be seen by outsiders.

Except I was able to see them.

I found the 2020 audited financial statements online and I didn’t need to ask permission from anyone or solve the Da Vinci Code to do it. I Googled, “Downtown Guelph Business Association financial statements” and found them in less than three seconds.

Of course, everyone’s entitled to the opinion, but hearing the complaints being levelled against the DGBA at the end of a marathon committee meeting, I found myself trying to remember what all this was about in the first place.

In October, Mayor Cam Guthrie brought a motion to have staff report information on what would be involved in reviewing the DGBA and about the process involved in surveying the members about dissolving the board. Fortunately, many councillors felt that word “dissolve” was a bit provocative, but after hearing the delegations Monday it now also feels presumptuous.

If the argument from the 40 businesses unofficially represented by Monday’s delegations is that the DGBA has to go because many people downtown don’t know what they get out of it, or even that they pay into it, then why is the answer to get rid of it? Should these people not understand first the role of the DGBA, its powers and responsibilities, and also it’s limits?

That’s why any governance review of DGBA must have an above average community outreach portion, a strong commitment to education, and an immediate start date.

Councillors wanting to refer this to the 2023 budget process were in earnest but delaying this for a year would mean another 365 days for false, misleading and outright misinformation to fester and grow. The truth doesn’t matter when minds are made up, and it’s clear some business owners downtown want the BIA gone for reasons that have nothing to do with their mission codified in local bylaws.

Those business owners are looking for somebody to help and understand them even though they were less than kind about it, but whether or not things are great downtown seems to be a matter of opinion. Maybe I'll see you there.