If Lara Pinchbeck, Nikhil Shah and Shangfei Huang had been real estate salespeople, it’s a sure bet that they’d have been millionaires by now.
Instead, because of their great work, hundreds of small business people and their customers are enjoying the fruits of a first-of-its-kind (and still pretty unique!) City of Edmonton program which uses public funds to stimulate building façade improvements and various kinds of redevelopment in the City’s business revitalization zones (BRZ).
The trio has been so successful in marketing the programs that they’ve won a nomination for a City Manager’s Award of Excellence.
The Sustainable Development Façade Improvement Program, explains team lead Lara, provides matching grants to a $30,000 limit (double that for corner buildings) to help small business property owners or business operators to improve the exterior appearance of their business.
“The stats are quite definitive,” says Lara. “Once a business has made a concerted effort to design and build a new façade, its cash flow can increase as much as 20%.”
Lara’s team focuses their efforts on the 13 city BRZs. Shopping streets that are more successful as a result of the grants tend to have more properties that are owned by the businesses in them.
“These people usually have wider networks. When they’re happy with our program and what it’s done for their business, the program spreads word-of-mouth,” she says.
Lara and Nikhil are the chief salespeople, and Shangfei is the team’s priceless support who not only knows the answers to any question applicants throw at her, but who also speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and Toishanese and is thus a critical connection to Chinatown businesses.
That Nikhil is a development officer on temporary loan also makes the process easier for participants, since he can advise about City permits before the actual time to apply for them.
If the property owner does not have his or her own designer, Lara says, the City helps them by handing them a list of designers that they can contact in their hunt for a new, updated street front.
“We have some influence on the design, since we want to make sure it is attractive, functional for the business, and compatible with the ambiance of the surrounding area,” says Lara.
When the business selects a builder and has a price, it then applies for a 50% matching grant to a $30,000 limit, or double that for a corner lot.
Lara says there are big benefits for both participants and the City. Business cash flow increases because lots of people suddenly notice a business that they’d taken for granted before. And as other businesses in a BRZ improve façades, there’s an overall ‘lift’ to the feel of the area which can attract more people to live there, and discourage crime.
She points out that there is no direct tax increase for the improvements, since property tax is based on square footage, which doesn’t change with a façade facelift.
The payoff for the City is longer term, she says. As more business improve their look and more people move into the surrounding neighbourhood, property values increase, returning more to the city in tax revenue.
In 2014, the program provided 25 participants with $844,221 in grants. It’s generated a total of about $10.6 million in façade improvements since 2002.
The façade program was the first of its kind when it launched. Up until a couple of years ago, funding was provided on an annual basis, but now it’s a regular part of the City’s budget.