Vancouver’s thriving downtown has been the envy of many North American cities but what happens when all the hustle and bustle stops… for two months!?! Now couple that with the demise of the international tourist, the collapse of the cruise ship industry, and the office tower crowd working from home and…Vancouver, we have a problem! President & CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association Charles Gauthier sits down with Adam & Matt to discuss how we got here, the most pressing pain points facing local businesses, and the biggest challenges moving forward for downtown and the city to rebound. It’s not all doom and gloom but, as Vancouver cautiously reopens, the city you call home definitely needs you. Time to step up!
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Who is Charles Gauthier?
Charles is the President & CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. He has been with the organization for over 28 years. He is originally from Winnipeg, where he attended The University of Manitoba and obtained a Masters of City Planning degree. He worked in both Winnipeg and Summerland before settling in Vancouver into his current role.
The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association is one of the largest business improvement associations in Canada. Since its inception, it has grown from a handful of employees to over 30 today.
How has Downtown Vancouver changed over the last 28 years?
When Larry Beasley was the Chief Planner of the City of Vancouver, they were moving forward with their policy of increasing the amount of housing on the downtown peninsula; this was a very exciting time. The expo lands were being converted to a high-density residential area at that time. Over the last 5-10 years, we have seen an increase of office space in the downtown and we are going to see more to come over the next 3-4 years. We have seen phenomenal growth in the downtown and the city as a whole. It has been amazing to be a part of.
What does the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association do?
This is the 50th year that the Business Improvement Association movement has been active in Canada. There were celebrations planned for this year before COVID-19 (Coronavirus) hit. A business improvement association is a self funded model where commercial building owners agree to contribute fees to the organization. We represent 90 blocks of the downtown area, which includes the central business district and downtown south. We are surrounded by others, but we are the largest one in the area. In this area we have 7,000 businesses that are eligible to be members of our organization. They do not have to pay for membership, as it is paid by the owners of commercial buildings through special levies. The funding allows our organization to support various programs (downtown ambassador program, clean team initiative), all of our marketing initiatives, advocacy work, our economic development work and all of our place making work. Place making includes holding festivals and events to promote different areas and buildings. Our annual budget is approximately $5M.
What have been the impacts of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) on the small business community downtown and the vitality downtown more generally?
Our Vancouver downtown is the envy of many of my colleagues in other cities in North America because it is known for its vitality and the residents that live in the downtown area. This downtown has literally had the life sucked out of it by COVID-19, which was very difficult to see. I am well aware of how difficult it is to run a small business and it was devastating to see all of the buildings shuttered around my office. It remains to be seen what this crisis will do to businesses and what it will do to their bottom line in the short and long term. Hopefully, businesses can get back up and running as soon as possible and start dealing with the new normal. We haven’t yet quantified what the new normal will be, but our organization is working with business owners and a number of other groups, including The Vancouver Board of Trade and others with the goal of discovering what the impact of COVID-19 will be.
Are you starting to see businesses up and running again and how will this look?
We are currently working with some business and hospitality organizations to try to gauge when businesses will reopen. Most of the early results are encouraging. The vast majority of Vancouver street level businesses (hospitality and tourism sector) are planning to open by the end of May or early June. Also, Pacific Centre has recently opened, along with Hudson’s Bay. Nordstrom’s and the Apple Store are expected to follow soon. What we will need to see next are the office workers return as they are the ones that support these businesses on their lunch breaks and in their overall spending patterns. It will take a long time to get back to normal or a new normal, but businesses will continue to operate how they have been recently, including delivery and curbside pickup. We are expecting another wave in the fall, so businesses that re-open will need to be prepared for that.
Are you expecting many businesses that will not re-open after this crisis is over?
It is too early to speculate at this point if businesses will be viable after this crisis is over. If a business has taken advantage of some of the federal programs that have been offered due to COVID-19, it should have a better change of weathering the storm. We also need to pay attention to all the different marketing campaigns that will be launched to encourage people to come back. These campaigns will be geared at making people feel comfortable and safe coming back into these businesses. This time is unprecedented, and we are making it up as we go along and we are trying our best to make sure the business casualties will be kept to a minimum.
Some large businesses that have been successfully operating over the last 2 months, like London Drugs, have been sharing their best practices with other organizations and smaller businesses, so these businesses will understand how to operate. How you handle returns? How to you make customer’s feel safe and comfortable? We are doing everything we can to facilitate a smooth re-entry for these businesses into the market.
Your organization normally supports festivals in the summer, but what will be done now that these type of events are outside the acceptable parameters?
We normally support 25-30 festivals and events each year. We have had to rethink this now because of COVID-19. These festivals are responsible for bringing many people from outside downtown to downtown to spend the day and spend money at local businesses. Maybe these festivals will be on the table next year, but that remains to be seen. Our organization is looking at exploring some marketing campaigns that will be within the realm of possibility that will still bring people back downtown this summer.
How will Vancouver fair over the next 12-18 months in relation to other more traditional downtown’s across North America?
Vancouver is unique. Our downtown economy is diversified. We have tourism, we have conventions and we have a strong residential population right in downtown. COVID-19’s impact was immediate, and it affected everyone. There are a lot of smart people working on this issue in the tourism and hospitality sector to bring people to downtown Vancouver safely during this crisis. In the old days, people used to do road trips across Canada to visit other cities. This could be something people will be looking for this year as well to have a vacation, but not leave the Country. It is also important that the residential population feels safe and ready to visit the shops and restaurants. The tourism sector will take awhile to bounce back and it is tough to say when international tourism will be safe again.
Has there been an increase in crime downtown?
We did see an uptick in crime as we started to see businesses close and less and less foot traffic. There was an immediate rise in break and enters at street level businesses. Our organization anticipated this, so we added overnight security patrols for these areas. We also communicated directly with the police department and this issue was addressed and reduced within a week to a week and a half. This was an unfortunate by-product of this crisis, but it didn’t get to a point that it was intolerable for the business owners.
Many store fronts at business levels have been boarded up during this crisis. We didn’t initially anticipate this, but we knew that this would be a negative aspect for people still living and working in the community. There was a partnership with some business improvement associations and the Vancouver Mural Festival to paint murals on these building fronts to brighten the area and make it look a bit more pleasing and inviting for people.
How has the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association been preparing for future crisis, like global warming?
For climate change, sea level rise has to become a focus for our organization. We do not have a large role to play like government, but we can do a small part to address it. We support city initiatives, like reducing single use items or the expansion of bike lanes and electric vehicle charging stations. You may think that these initiatives would not create controversy in our organization, but they do. We still encourage our members to support these initiatives and others to help combat climate change. We have also created great partnerships with other organizations that have a greater role to address climate change.
Is there a lasting impact for downtown Vancouver caused by COVID-19 that you have become aware of?
One that stands out is how we can get downtown to be less reliant on the private automobile. Social distancing is not going away anytime soon. The city may need to be adapted, including widening sidewalks for social distancing, and letting our restaurants spill out into the streets to ensure adequate seating arrangements. This will take away road space for automobiles, as we need more outdoor space for people. City Council is looking at this issue right now. There is even a discussion of keeping Stanley Park car free going forward. These are issues that will need to be addressed and might be a lasting (maybe positive) outcome of COVID-19.
Working from home might be another one. Working from home will not replace office space, but it will provide people with more options. People are finding that working from home may not be as difficult as they thought it would be and people are finding they can be productive at home. Going forward, we might see working from home being incorporated more into our daily working lives. This will not replace office space, but it will provide more options for working.
What can people do to help the businesses that have been impacted?
When you feel comfortable, go out and support our street level businesses and restaurants. See everything that Vancouver has to offer. Businesses are very aware that people are afraid and uncertain, and these businesses have taken great precautions to make sure patrons will be safe and comfortable. When you feel safe to visit, businesses will be here to welcome you back.
Favourite neighbourhood: Marpole – very diverse, local independent shops, close to the Fraser River and the Airport.
Favourite bar or restaurant: Nightingale and Italian Kitchen, Tractor for lunch.
One book you would recommend everyone read: Reinventing Your Board by John Carver and Mariam Carver
One piece of advice you would give your 18-year-old self: Be patient and really try to ensure you can mentor people and be mentored by people throughout your life
Something you have purchased for under $1,000 that has positively changed your life: A pair of good running shoes for $200 (or several pairs over the years)
Find out more about the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.