Jamie Hayes

Downtown development: Filling vacancies top priority of MDBA

Mission Downtown Business Association sees plenty of potential for growth and is trying to attract more stores to open in the area.

Downtown Mission boasts a collection of shops, locally run businesses, restaurants and other establishments – along with noticeable vacancies.

The increasing number of empty buildings has not gone unnoticed by the Mission Downtown Business Association (MDBA).

Jamie Hayes, executive director of the MDBA, admits that the vacancies are a concern. However, she says there is still plenty of potential downtown. She also realizes that the challenges now being faced are not unique to Mission and other smaller downtown cores.

“Robson Street in Vancouver has plenty of vacancy as well,” said Hayes, who takes some comfort in that.

“But it doesn’t change the fact of what things are.

“The fact of the matter is we do have many businesses that have been here for decades. We’ve got a loyal group of people who shop down here on a regular basis, but we are concerned about the vacancies.”

Hayes said the association is currently compiling a database of information that will create a list of vacancies, the square footage of empty space and the price per square foot.

The MDBA is more than 100 members strong and continues to promote and market the downtown, plan events to draw people to the downtown, and work to maintain and attract businesses and potential investors.

“We try very hard to encourage people to shop local. Some people think, incorrectly, that shopping local is going to be more expensive, and that’s not necessarily the case.

“Some people think that the downtown is unsafe, which is completely untrue,” said Hayes.

Another challenge is the public’s urge to cross the bridge and shop in neighbouring Abbotsford. Hayes said it has become habit for some people who think other communities have more to offer.

“Downtown Mission is so utterly unique. A lot of people don’t realize what stores are down here.”

The MDBA has an “excellent relationship” with the district’s economic development department, and Hayes said she is excited about the incentives being offered to both improve and attract businesses from outside of Mission.

Stacey Crawford, economic development officer for the District of Mission, said there are incentives in place to encourage new and current building and business owners to invest in their properties.

One example is the property tax exemption.

“It is a 10-year program that takes the pre-development property value and effectively freezes it for five years,” said Crawford.

Building improvements increase a property’s value, causing a rise in taxes. The program freezes the tax rate for five years, then gradually increases it to the normal level over the following five years.

That incentive is applicable to existing downtown buildings and  vacant lots.

Another example is the facade improvement program – a grant that will pay 50 per cent, up to a maximum of $2,000, of the cost for street-facing facade improvements.

It can be claimed by either the building owner or the merchant.

“There’s definitely been a lot of interest in that one. It is definitely the most achievable one,” said Crawford.

Other incentives include municipal fee reductions for business improvements and waiving the community amenities contribution.

Crawford said there is also more flexibility being offered regarding parking requirements and building heights.

“The downtown core is the heart of Mission. Historically, it’s the commercial centre of Mission and it’s also the first impression of Mission,” he said.

He said the district is trying to create the environment that encourages renewal.

The incentives began just over a year ago as part of the Mission City Downtown Action Plan. Created by the former council, it is not clear exactly how much, or when, other aspects of the plan will come into effect.

Hayes said the MDBA is hoping the district proceeds with the streetscape portion of the plan. That would mean improvements to lamps, sidewalks and general aesthetics.

Hayes said the association has many goals for the downtown core, but filling the vacancies takes priority, for now.

“We’re hoping that development increases and in doing so it will attract businesses and developers from outside of Mission to come. I’d love this to be a hot spot. And it can be – there’s so much potential.”

“Do you shop in downtown Mission on a regular basis? Let us know, and share your comments below.