What is Council Doing to Our BIA?

Proposed designs for archway sign
Proposed variations on the design for the archway sign as presented to council last month.

Last week, the chair of our BIA (Business Improvement Area: our association of downtown merchants and businesses) resigned from the organization he has served on for the past seven years. In his letter (quoted in CollingwoodToday) of resignation, David Conning wrote (emphasis added):

Following last evening’s council discussion, I continue to have no faith that the town councillors will support any major initiative of the BIA, even when presented with expert documentation recommending the project… I have neither the time nor the inclination to invest in championing projects that will ultimately fall to political decision-makers,

The project he refers to is the prosed archway sign, shown above. The BIA planned to pay for the sign with its own funds, and received a $140,000 federal grant to have it built. The proposal drew criticism from a mere seven residents after it was presented to council in March. According to the Connection:

At the April 4 meeting of the strategic initiatives committee, councillors voted to postpone the construction of an archway at the corner of Hurontario and First Streets to do a “visioning exercise” for the downtown, which would include public consultation.

Of course, the “consultation” is only online, disenfranchising anyone without an internet connection and a computer, or who doesn’t use social media to learn about the “consultation.” It’s less a consultation than a sop to pretend council is actually engaging the public when they’re just sitting back passively and waiting for their friends and family members to make comments. Council’s public engagement is a sham.

Visioning exercise? This council has had a single, myopic vision since it was elected: to spend more of the taxpayers’ money on Saunderson’s obsession with his vendetta against anyone who bruised his fragile ego a decade ago. More than $10 million of our money has been wasted on it; a significant portion of it going to sole-sourced contracts for our mayor’s former employers. This council has no more vision than a blind cave salamander.

Given the record of secrecy and deception by the former council (including our current mayor and several of his sycophants on this council) over the privatization of our electricity utility and airport, huffing and puffing about public consultation with this lot is hypocrisy, indeed. It’s really just an effort to avoid having to make an actual decision.

Coun. Hamlin got on her holier-than-thou high horse, to comment that,

“The BIA does a lot of great work for our downtown…but I feel what’s happened here is they’ve driven out of their lane.” said Coun. Yvonne Hamlin … adding that the role of the BIA is to support businesses and oversee the beautification of the town-owned infrastructure.
“Oversee means supervise. It doesn’t mean go off and come up with plans and build them. I think we’ve strayed from what the traditional role of the BIA is.”

In the earlier Connection story, our new councillor, lobbyist, and donor to six of the members who voted to appoint him instead of the more ethical and democratic choice, Chris Carrier said,

…a “step was missed” in the process — and that was getting input from the people who own the downtown… “The public wasn’t consulted,” he said.

Which is just self-righteous twaddle. When was the public ever consulted about signs? Do we get a say on billboards? The signs on stores and offices? Did we get a say on the informational maps downtown and in our parks? Or the entranceway signs at our borders? The parking signs? No-parking signs? The highway signs? Roundabout signs? Why is this one so special it requires a full-blown public consultation?

This isn’t some community-changing event or a new facility: it’s a sign meant to draw visitors into the downtown. People can whinge all they want about its aesthetics, but there is no legal or policy requirement for such public consultation on any sign here. (For the record, I think it’s unattractive, but so what? The sign went through a design process with the BIA and they’re happy with it.) Besides, the public isn’t paying for it: the BIA is through their fees.

In a previous meeting reported in the Connection, Downtown BIA general manager Sue Nicholson explained the reason the BIA felt the sign was necessary:

With more than two million tourists travelling to the area every year, Nicholson said it’s important the downtown makes itself visible to people travelling along Highway 26.
“The highway that runs through Collingwood is a liability,” she said. “The vibrant retail area is not visible to someone who is driving along Highway 26 and it would be very easy for travellers to stop in at places on First Street and think they would see the entire community.”

The BIA is a democratically-elected body that represents the people who actually “own the downtown” — it isn’t a public park, merely a geographic designation. The public does not own the downtown any more than it owns the west-end malls. The public technically owns the roads and sidewalks, of course, so the BIA requires permission from town hall to build anything on them.

And let’s not forget the dark, brooding shadow of the Heritage Committee that lurks in every brick and lamppost to ensure strict compliance with their poorly-communicated and hazy rules. Yet the HC approved the proposed sign.

There were only EIGHT comments (which just underscores how flaccid our council’s communications policies and practices are if so few respond) included on the April 4 agenda. Of them:

  • Seven are negative; one is positive;
  • One is from the Blue Mountains, not Collingwood;
  • Only ONE is from BIA members;
  • Two identify as Collingwood residents; four are unidentified.

But a little kerfuffle from a tiny handful of residents opposed to anything and our council goes all chicken-little and runs around screaming that the sky is falling (just like they did when they got a report on the water issues), and then makes ill-informed policy decisions that affect thousands. The Connection reported:

Coun. Deb Doherty said it was a “resounding, mostly negative reaction” and “I just can’t responsibly ignore it.”

Resounding? SEVEN is barely a whisper in a community of 25,000 or more. It isn’t even a fraction of a suggestion of a whisper of a representational selection of the community.* Doherty is just being egregiously histrionic. Too bad she wasn’t so sensitive to all the negative comments about council’s wasting our tax dollars on Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial Inquiry.

Go to our town’s “Engage Collingwood” website** and try to find any reference to this alleged “visioning exercise” promised three weeks ago: nothing! Why not? Oh, right: the broken committee system council uses means that it had to wait until April 19 for the full council meeting before it could get approved. And even though town hall knew it was coming weeks ago, it’s still not online a week later. Our council: making bureaucracy move at slower-than-a-snail’s pace.

In the past six months, five of eight BIA board members, all volunteers, have resigned: David Conning, Penny Skelton, Meghan Berofsky, Cassie MacKell, and Brandon Houston. Clearly, the relationship between council and the BIA is not as rosy as some suggest. In fact, it appears downright confrontational.***

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~

* For a population of 25,000, using a 2% margin of error and a 95% confidence rate, you would need 2,191 responses. To get a 20% response rate from your survey, you need to invite 10,955 people to respond. A response of only seven residents (assuming the unidentified responses are local residents) means a 37.05% margin of error. The number of eligible voters in Collingwood is close to the 25,000 mark, when you include all non-resident property owners. For 20,000 the number of respondents required is 2,144 and the margin of error rises to 37.03%. This, of course, is when using active survey methods, not the impotent, passive methods the town uses, which are, statistically speaking, risible rubbish.

** An ironic name if ever there was one. Our council’s “engagement” policy is pathetically ineffective and uncommunicative. Well, okay, it’s not an actual policy or a strategy, just a passive process of waiting for someone else to connect with them and then pretending a smattering of responses represents something important. Creating something effective and active would consume too much of their limited neural effort, I suppose.

*** In mid-2020, all nine members of the BIA board resigned, including Alex Yuen, the chair, who quit when council unilaterally decided to open the Farmers’ Market during the pandemic without approval from the BIA board. According to the CollingwoodToday story, council just ignored the BIA’s concerns:

“We hadn’t even discussed [the opening] yet,” said Yuen. “There was supposed to be a meeting … technically we didn’t support the market at the time. There wasn’t a consensus that we were in support of putting the market on.”
According to the minutes from the June 11 board meeting, which have been approved by the BIA board, and posted publicly, the board “agreed to wait until all members are present and there is a decision from the town regarding funding.”

In mid-March, 2020, council considered removing BIA representation from the Heritage Committee, even though the two districts are very closely aligned and the HC decisions affect BIA members more than any other residents. But council pandered to two of its close friends on the HC who didn’t want to have a BIA-appointed rep able to vote. Removing a BIA vote would go a long way to silencing dissension on the board. The subsequent decisions could then appear to be unanimous. How very Stalinist of them.

In  Jan. 2020, Coun. Comi (who was later bullied out of office by Mayor Saunderson and his Gang so they could replace her with their friend, lobbyist, and campaign donor) resigned as council rep on the BIA board, citing medical reasons. According to the story in CollingwoodToday, the BIA board “…carried a resolution to request council consider the appointment of Coun. Deb Doherty as replacement.” Instead, Council appointed Dep. Mayor Hull. I can find no evidence that council either contacted or consulted with the BIA board before or after making this choice. I suspect this didn’t help the relationship, either.

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