EcDev Journal

Business Improvement Areas: COVID-19 Economic Mitigation and Recovery of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses in Ontario

Posted on Thursday October 08, 2020
Figure 1

By: Laura Burnham, BIA Coordinator, and Operations Manager, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. laura.burnham @

Abstract: The role of Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) in the early mitigation of the economic impacts of COVID-19 on small and medium-sized businesses in Ontario was studied. As this is a new area of research, several methodologies including analyzing data collected from March to June of 2020 from surveys and case studies were incorporated. It was found that BIAs adapted significantly--as of April, approximately 80% of BIAs surveyed confirmed that their priorities had changed due to COVID-19 (OBIAA, 2-3)--in order to support their Member businesses and property owners during this unprecedented economic crisis. The data showed that the strong role of BIAs in service delivery to small and medium-sized businesses during COVID-19 included an initial focus on enhanced communications, business support, advocacy, marketing placemaking, and safety and security measures that were specific to the quickly changing crisis. Many of these BIA's first response service deliveries have continued, expanded, and evolved into support strategies for reopening and recovery in the still-developing economic impacts of COVID-19.

The research demonstrated that BIAs are particularly well-positioned as established hubs to partner with Member businesses and corporate, government, professional, and private sectors. This allowed BIAs to pivot quickly within the context of the dynamics of their area to provide support to small and medium-sized businesses immediately at the onset of the outbreak of the pandemic. Included in this article are several implementable community actions for the joint success of BIAs and their key partners to build innovations, collaborations, skills, and resource developments that will support the economic survival and recovery of local businesses--the backbone of our local, provincial, and national economies.

Key Words: Business Improvement Areas, Business Support, COVID-19, Small and Medium-Sized Businesses, Economic Mitigation and Recovery, Partners


Within the half-century since its inception, the Business Improvement Area (BIA) model has previously been untested at such a scale in responding to a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19. The unprecedented action of an extensive government-directed shutdown of non-essential main street businesses in March of 2020, during the early stages of COVID-19 impacts, required BIAs to adapt quickly to support their Member businesses, including a large number of local small and medium-sized businesses which have been significantly affected by COVID-19 measures. The pre-existing structures of BIAs make them ideal partners to enhance the local service delivery of business support to Member businesses during an economic crisis.

What are BIAs?

BIAs are local Municipal Boards of Management that serve a specific geographic area. The Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Handbook defines BIAs as an “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” (2). According to the Handbook, the traditional functions of BIAs include beautification, streetscaping, maintenance, cleanliness, safety and security, advocacy, communications, business recruitment, special events, and marketing (3-4); however, the priorities and functions of an individual BIA also adapt within the scope of permitted activities in response to changing needs of their local business community, as has occurred with the COVID-19 crisis. BIAs have structures, procedural rules, and accountabilities, as set out in the Provincial Municipal Act, 2001, sections 204–216, as well as in Chapter 19 of the City of Toronto Act, 2006.

BIAs are often key partners of main street and downtown revitalization projects in their communities. The Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA) describes a BIA as “integral to advancing a distinct, livable, vibrant and resilient business district within their local community” (1).

Small and Medium-Sized Businesses During COVID-19

Numerous surveys conducted by organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA), the OBIAA, and Statistics Canada, found that many small and medium businesses have been suffering notable adverse COVID-19 related economic effects during the COVID-19 shutdown such as decreased sales, reduced revenue, lower demand for goods and services and inability to pay basic business expenses such as rent and wages. This downturn was exacerbated due to the inability of many businesses to shift their sales to an online or remote format.

The resulting permanent business closures and cutbacks have significant impacts on local communities and on Ontario’s economy. Data from Statistics Canada’s “Key Small Business Report” shows that Ontario small and medium-sized businesses account for 99.7% of employer businesses and 87.7% of jobs in Ontario (6, 14). This translates to a total of 34.6% of all Canadian jobs (14).

Analysis of BIA COVID-19 Economic Mitigation

An analysis of initial BIA COVID-19 economic mitigation and recovery strategies in Ontario between March and June 2020 was conducted based on a variety of methodologies as well as two contrasting, in-depth case studies, with a focus on small and medium-sized businesses.

Initial Response of BIAs to Support Small and Medium-Sized Businesses During COVID-19

The government-mandated COVID-19 measure of business shutdowns in Ontario in March 2020 forced BIAs to cancel investments of local socio-economic importance, such as their upcoming events programming, and to instead immediately prioritize economic mitigation support to Member businesses. Delia Reiche, Ec.D. Development Liaison at the County of Brant explained that as COVID-19 government and economic development announcements come, organizations like BIAs must modify their strategies along the way as there can be quick turnarounds on an issue of funding.

In the “OBIAA Impact of COVID-19 on BIAs Survey” conducted between April 10 to April 24, 2020, one of the most significant survey indicators that BIAs had quickly pivoted their programming and Member support strategies was that by April 24, 2020, 80.49% (66 out of 82 respondents) confirmed that their BIA had already changed its priorities due to COVID-19 (2-3). As business owners faced singularly financially and emotionally draining times due to COVID-19, BIAs were required to be adaptable to their Members’ changing needs. Kay Matthews, Executive Director of OBIAA explains how BIAs became “‘essential workers’, showing agility in transitioning their day-to-day work to one of support, connectivity, and providing hope, both visually and emotionally.” (See Fig. 1).

In the early stage of the COVID-19 crisis, BIAs focused their efforts of economic mitigation and continuity support on enhanced Member service via expanded methods of communication, providing or connecting Members to various business support resources, promoting businesses and the local business community through hyper-local marketing, advocating especially in regard to local issues and individual or collective challenges with government financial support initiatives and confusion around information from various levels of government, placemaking to create a sense of community and for public health, and assisting with safety and security issues arising from closed storefronts and other assorted challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic (12-17). Many of these areas of support are natural extensions of the infrastructure BIAs already had in place for service delivery to businesses. The data indicates a greater shift in the BIAs’ methods of service delivery to more online options as well as a shift in the types of support offered to Members, essential business support which will likely continue for some time.

Adversity as a Catalyst for Action

Of interest is that many of the initiatives undertaken by both the Duke Heights BIA and Downtown Belleville BIA case studies to mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 on their Members were projects that were already being conceptualized, considered, or in the beginning phase of implementation. Those projects had synchronicity of themes--to make use of newer communication technologies to facilitate outreach to Members and consumers, and to address current shifts, trends, and consumer patterns to a more multifaceted shopping experience including an online component. The COVID-19 crisis accelerated the timelines of their projects and hastened the uptake of Member engagement in mitigation strategies. It is likely that many of these projects will become integrated into BIA operations and support systems and will continue to grow beyond COVID-19 for as long as their Members continue to engage and benefit from these business supports, communications, and marketing activities.

Reopening and Recovery Support

As the initial COVID-19 phase improved and the province moved further into reopening, BIAs shifted their focus to supporting Members with the process of reopening readiness as well as the provision of marketing and placemaking initiatives to attract shoppers back to main street small and medium-sized businesses while maintaining physical distancing. The support initiatives include promoting Digital Main Street business offerings, new placemaking, art, and design projects, Buy Local marketing, revisioned events, non-crowd generating attractions and displays, and working with municipalities to support options such as curbside pick up and patios for businesses to improve capacity. Additionally, as aptly described by Matthews, BIAs continue to work in this COVID-19 world as “the ‘feet on the street’ connector between Municipal Recovery Committees and the main street businesses.”

Factors for Successful COVID-19 Economic Mitigation for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses

The research conducted also revealed several business success/survival factors, as shown in figure 2, which can be considered by BIAs, Member businesses, and partners to shape support projects moving forward.

Resources are a Key Challenge to BIA Service Delivery During COVID-19

As BIAs continue to introduce new plans to help their Members mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19, it is important to keep in mind the limitations to a BIA’s service delivery. A key issue noted by both BIA case study interviewees is that BIAs in general have limited resources and budgets. Kelsey Moniz, Marketing and Media Officer with the Belleville Downtown District BIA stated that “All BIAs have a lot on their plate, a lot to deal with” and that “having funds to hire strategic support is critical to continued success.” She described how “there are so many opportunities, resources, and partners out there that continue to be critical…but all of this takes time.” Atul Oka, Senior Director of Strategy and Business Development at Duke Heights BIA, also indicated lack of resources being a challenge and that “Ours (BIA) is luckier than others because we (already) had a dedicated Economic Development function, dedicated HR & Employment function, and a dedicated marketing function. The ability and structures in place made it easier, faster.”

BIA Partnerships

BIAs that are supported by local key partners are, in turn, uniquely enabled to support their main street small to medium-sized business membership within the context of the dynamics of their area. BIAs provide their business communities with the support that they would otherwise not receive to the same degree. Both case studies discussed the key role that having strong partnerships played either in delivering or enhancing program development and promotion and ultimately finding greater success via a collaborative approach. Many main street businesses will continue to have a tough period ahead even as the province enters further into the recovery phase. As longer-term economic impacts of COVID-19 are expected to be felt for a while yet, it is critical for Ontario’s economy and for the preservation of local communities and jobs that BIAs and their partners work together to continue to support small and medium-sized businesses during the reopening and recovery periods. As stated by Reiche, “Everyone must work together when an all hands-on deck situation arises.” (See Fig. 3)

The role of BIA Coordinators and EDPs:

Following is a selection of implementable community actions for the continued efforts and enhanced success of BIAs and their partners in their joint endeavours to support the economic recovery of small and medium-sized businesses throughout the active and post-pandemic phases of COVID-19.

1.  Improve collaboration with BIAs amongst representatives from all levels of governments, the private sector, economic development organizations such as the Economic Developers Council of Ontario, BIAs, OBIAA, TABIA, and other agencies to ensure effective service delivery.

2.  Increase partner support for BIAs undertaking innovative business support projects and test pilots in communities across Ontario. A case study for this would be the City of Toronto’s BIA Innovative Grant, which encourages creative initiatives, builds capacity, and supports the sharing of ideas.

3.  Facilitate and promote an Ontario-wide database of BIA initiatives and innovations--whether small or large--that would be easily searchable, categorized, and traceable over time.

4.  Expand academic research and analysis of BIA case studies to better learn from the wide range of innovative projects undertaken by BIAs as well as to identify the changes brought about by the pandemic.

5.  Provide BIAs with enough resources to be able to continue their work going throughout the recovery stages. BIAs are funded by local businesses and property owners who have been hard-hit by COVID-19.

6.  Create partnerships to provide professional training resources and/or services for BIA teams in Ontario that are relevant to current and emerging issues in local communities. Topics should be selected strategically in consultation with BIAs, OBIAA, and TABIA. Examples include areas of expertise such as conflict resolution, crisis management, emergency communications and planning, diversity sensitivity and communications as well as specialized topics in local economic development, marketing, law, human resources, and accounting.

Virtually all aspects of the current ongoing COVID-19 economic mitigation and recovery of small and medium-sized businesses presented in this article are also relevant, and the recommendations applicable, to further waves of the pandemic.

For local economic development during a pandemic, the way that Reiche describes it, the new master plan is to be responsive as the situation changes and that “there must be plans in place for the unexpected whether positive or detrimental.”

In order to continue to play their role and contribute to a responsive recovery plan, BIAs must, as Matthews states, “be valued, supported and provided the resources to implement economic recovery as the unknown future unfolds.” 

In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity - Albert Einstein

These challenging times provide an opportunity to move forward with new local economic development measures to ensure Ontario’s economy and jobs are preserved by supporting small and medium-sized businesses. Effective responsiveness to the economic crisis entails a multifaceted approach that includes strengthening collaboration with all stakeholders; improving business support content and delivery; and prompt integration of new communication models, financial support initiatives, and evolving marketing trends.

BIAs are well-positioned as established hubs to partner with Member businesses and corporate, government, professional and private sectors to achieve these goals during an economic crisis and recovery period in local communities across Ontario.


Works Cited: 

Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. Your Business and COVID-19 Survey, 16 March 2020. 

Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. COVID-19: State of Small Business Key results– Week 13. 8 June 2020, 

City of Toronto. Toronto Municipal Code Chapter 19, Business Improvement Areas, 19-1, 30 April 2020.

 Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada. Statistics Canada. Key Small Business Statistics, November 2019.$file/KSBS_Nov-2019_En_Final_5.pdf 

Ontario Business Improvement Area Association. (2020, March 26). OBIAA COVID-19 Impact To BIA Community Survey, 26 March 2020. Accessed 5 June 2020. 

Ontario Business Improvement Area Association. OBIAA Impact of COVID-19 on BIAs, 27 April 2020. Accessed 20 May 2020. 

Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affair and Housing. Business Improvement Area Handbook. 2010, Retrieved from 

Province of Ontario. Municipal Code. S.O. 2001, CHAPTER 25, 18 March 2020. 

Statistics Canada. Canadian Survey on Business Conditions: Impact of COVID-19 on businesses in Canada, March 2020, 29 April 2020. 

Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas & Broadview Danforth BIA. Commercial Rent Assistance Survey Results - Tenant,. 3 June 2020.  

Bio: Laura has supported the growth and enrichment of several Toronto BIAs and their communities over the last ten years. This follows her completion of an H.B.A. in Canadian Studies, Environment and Resource Management, and Political Science from the University of Toronto and an international exchange at the University of Otago. More recently, Laura completed the curriculum of the Ryerson University Certificate in Local Economic Development with a special emphasis on the impacts of COVID-19.