COVID recovery must include ‘Main Street’



It’s a political cliché like no other: I’m for Main Street, not Wall Street (or Bay Street, in our case).

Yet, for generations, Main Streets have struggled, with big-box stores and shopping malls drawing consumer dollars away, and the reliance on the car a challenge for storefronts to adapt to when their surrounding and enabling infrastructure was built up a century or more ago.

Likewise, municipalities, provincial and federal governments have worked over the past few decades to fund infrastructure renewal, incentivize facade upgrading, invest in banners or other aesthetic improvements, and otherwise catalyze Main Streets to succeed – with mixed results.

Some efforts have seen great success, with local restaurants or cultural attractions becoming tourist destinations; others have experienced “one step forward, two steps back” results, as one small business closing causes a domino effect undoing years of baby steps forward.

But during COVID-19, Canada’s Main Streets – particularly in rural municipalities – are being battered like never before.

Jon Shell of Save Our Small Businesses summed it in appropriately municipal terms when he said, “I see a lot of people trying to compare [COVID-19] to the recession caused by the 2008/9 financial crisis…That was a pothole. This is a collapsed bridge.”

It is critical that a recovery plan for COVID-19 include aggressive measures to invest in our Main Streets.

As Kay Matthews, the executive director of the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association said, “Our main streets are resilient, they have survived in Canada for hundreds of years, they will survive again, but in order for them to move beyond mere survival they will need priority investment, nurturing and dedicated stewardship in order to thrive.”

Such “priority investment” must come from all levels of government.

For their part, Premier Doug Ford’s recent Ontario budget included a potential game changer for Main Streets.  The Tories’ fiscal blueprint includes a commitment to enable municipalities to “provide a property tax reduction for eligible small businesses through the adoption of a new optional small business property subclass.  The Province will consider matching these municipal property tax reductions in order to further reduce taxes on jobs now and in the future.”

For struggling small businesses, such tax relief will do much to stabilize such a frightening economic situation.

But municipalities also have to step up to the plate. 

It is something of a trope of local politics that most municipalities have existing Main Street improvement plans for infrastructure renewal “sitting on a shelf”.  There is no better time than the coming downturn from COVID-19 to stimulate economic growth by dusting off those revitalization plans in a manner that supports Main Street businesses for the long-term.

As the Canadian Urban Institute suggests in a recent report, “Main streets provide value for investment… main streets ‘punch above their weight’… they provide significant portions of the city’s tax base (usually around 10 to 15 per cent), a concentration of jobs, cultural institutions, and entertainment offerings.

The Institute goes on to say, “Big public investments, in community facilities, public realm upgrades, parks, public art in our downtowns have historically had great success in growing public confidence and stimulating local economies.  As we’re thinking about recovery, considering value for investment will help to ensure public and private funds are used strategically to support economic growth and the vibrancy and livability of our communities.”

It may be a political cliché to be for Main Street – but it is also imperative for COVID-19 recovery.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Jonathan Scott.   @J_Scott_

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