Downtown Niagara Falls BIA

We want to hear from you! The City of Niagara Falls is seeking input from the Downtown business community regarding the reformation of a Business Improvement Area (BIA).

Downtown Niagara Falls is typically defined as the area encompassing historic Queen Street and is home to a diverse mix of retail, restaurant, entertainment and professional service businesses.

In 1972, a bylaw was passed that established a Downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA). At that time, a Board of Management was created and entrusted with certain powers to enhance the streetscaping and to promote the designated area as a business or shopping area.

In 2023, the bylaw establishing a Downtown BIA was repealed and City staff were directed to explore options for the potential reformation of a BIA after consultations with the members of the downtown business community.

Groups of individuals with a shared interest in enhancing a commercial district typically have two options for creating a membership-led and funded organization: Business Improvement Areas (BIA) or Merchants Associations.

A Business Improvement Area (BIA) is a “made-in-Ontario” innovation that allows local business people and commercial property owners and tenants to join together and, with the support of the municipality, to organize, finance, and carry out physical improvements and promote economic development in their district. Traditionally, a BIA is a body established by a municipality using the specific business improvement area provisions in the Municipal Act, 2001.

The general functions of a BIA are to:

  • Oversee the improvement, beautification and maintenance of municipally-owned land, buildings and structures in the area beyond that provided at the expense of the municipality generally.
  • Promote the area as a business or shopping area.

These BIA functions are generally funded by a special levy within the boundaries of the BIA. It is paid in most cases by owners of property designated as industrial or commercial, and their tenants. There is no opt out option, reflecting the principle that all who benefit should be required to bear their fair share of the cost of the program. This arrangement provides a secure source of funding for BIA activities.

Because BIAs are regulated by the Municipal Act, municipalities have a significant role in their creation and financial monitoring. A municipal bylaw is required to create a BIA and budgets are submitted to Council for approval. Once a budget is approved, a levy is collected by the municipality and funds are disbursed by the municipality to the board.

A Merchants Association is an independent, non-profit organization that offers a flexible structure for a variety of functions, which could include many functions traditionally fulfilled by a BIA. When incorporated, a Merchants Association is subject to the Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporation Act or the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act. A Merchants Association may also be referred to as a Downtown Development Association, Community Development Organization, Business Association or go by other similar names.

Merchants Associations are generally funded by voluntary payments made by members. It is up to the Association to determine who its members are and what the membership fee will be. The Association is responsible for recruiting members and establishing mechanisms to collect the membership fee. This is a significant difference from a BIA. While voluntary membership fees allow uninterested property owners to opt-out, it can also make funding less secure.

Unlike a BIA, a Merchants Association has no municipal oversight and there is no inherent municipal support. Associations are governed by Boards of Directors that are elected by the members.

There are several services that have traditionally been funded and managed by a BIA that are unlikely to continue if no organization exists.

These services include, but are not limited to:

  • Seasonal flower installation and maintenance (i.e bollards, hanging planters)
  • Street banner programs
  • Christmas lights and decorations
  • Holiday parking promotions
  • Street speaker system
  • Support for street events
  • Downtown destination marketing (i.e. social media, eat local passport, etc.)
  • Maintenance of municipally-owned structures (i.e. arches, waste receptacles, etc.) beyond that provided at the expense of the municipality

City staff play a support role by facilitating opportunities for members of the downtown business community to provide input. If a group of stakeholders are interested in the potential recreation of a BIA, City staff are available to advise on the traditional steps to creating a BIA.

City staff do not decide whether a BIA or Merchants Association is created. For a BIA to be considered, a group of leaders from the downtown business community typically form a steering committee that establishes a set of preliminary goals and objectives. If the committee can obtain sufficient support for a BIA, the group may formalize a request to the municipality, which would then follow an established process and rules before passing a bylaw to designate the proposed area as a BIA. A notification period is required, which offers an opportunity for stakeholders to object to the proposal.

There is no formalized process for creating a Merchants Association that involves the municipality, though members of an Association may voluntarily engage with City Staff and/or Council.