Calgary's business improvement areas (BIAs) are working collaboratively to help the city's small businesses survive the COVID-19 downturn. Cody Stuart / CREB®Now Archive

At a time when it’s common to be shut in, Calgary’s business improvement areas (BIAs) are reaching out to help entrepreneurs through the challenges of COVID-19.

A prime example is the Crescent Heights Village BIA, formed last October to give area business owners a unified voice.

“We are big on information sharing around rent relief and government funding,” said executive director Camie Leard.

“We’ve also built a significant online presence for our BIA and some of our members. Since the pandemic hit, all of Calgary’s 15 BIAs have been working closely together, with weekly meetings and surveys of members to help the City in directing their funds and efforts most effectively.”

The BIAs also collaborated successfully to lobby the Government of Alberta for a $5,000 business reopening grant to cover personal protective equipment (PPE).

That effective team approach might explain why BIAs in Canada are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

“BIAs are actually a Canadian invention that started in Ontario, and the model has been widely adopted, as it has proven effective,” said Leard. “Small businesses are so busy working on their operation 24/7, so if they can pay a levy and have someone spend the time and effort to attract customers to the area, it’s worth their while.”

“This crisis has changed the way business works forever, and it’s time for entrepreneurs to look at how the future will unfold and how they can thrive in it.” – Camie Leard, Crescent Heights Village BIA

In addition to standard services provided by all BIAs, certain areas require specialized attention.

“With our multilingual community, a lot of our businesses deal in both English and Chinese,” said Terry Wong, executive director of Calgary’s Chinatown BIA. “We’ve been trying to help merchants navigate COVID-19 programs like forgivable loans and utility tax deferrals via language translation and working with government to provide services in Chinese where possible.”

Though the pandemic has claimed several victims among Calgary small businesses, the picture is not entirely bleak.

“We lost four businesses from February to June of this year, but then gained three new ones, so we are only down one since COVID-19 hit,” said Leard. “This crisis has changed the way business works forever, and it’s time for entrepreneurs to look at how the future will unfold and how they can thrive in it.”

Whether it’s now or down the road, consumers can help those businesses thrive by remembering two magic words: buy local.

“Many people see Amazon as easy and fast, but forget that they could get the same item from a small business,” said Leard.

“The pandemic has brought a new level of consciousness on the part of consumers, as they realize that a dollar matters more to John’s Bakery than to Jeff Bezos. For every $100 spent at a local business, $68 remains in the community, whereas when you shop at a national chain, only $43 stays local. That speaks volumes.”