Why Main Streets Matter

This article was originally published on bringbackmainstreet.ca

Please note that the BIA will continue to advocate for our mainstreets and share news, tools and resources as they are made available. Check back on our website for updates as the COVID19 situation evolves.



Data released last week by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Statistics Canada paint a dire picture of the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian businesses. Those that are hardest hit represent the anchor industries of urban main streets that make up the lifeblood of our communities ā€” accommodation and food services (73%), arts, entertainment and recreation (87%) and retail (72.5%).

But this is about more than just the economy. The livability and character of our local neighbourhoods and the vibrancy of our cities is all at risk if we donā€™t take bold action.

Our main streets are iconic symbols of urban life and belonging. They are where we go to shop and do business, eat, play and participate in civic life. They are where we go to gather, define common purpose, and bridge across difference. They are dynamic places that reflect the unique qualities of the surrounding area. For many, main streets are the heart of their community. They exist across the country ā€” in small towns, mid-sized communities, and urban commercial districts.

ā€œMain streets are like the spine of every vital urban centreā€ ā€” Mary Rowe, Canadian Urban Institute

Our main streets ā€” and the businesses found there ā€” have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Many small businesses have already been lost, and more will continue to close permanently in the coming days, weeks and months. The Canadian Federation of Independent Businessā€™s weekly survey of independent businesses reported that only 20 per cent of small businesses are fully open, 30 per cent do not have cash flow to pay April bills and 39 per cent are worried about permanent closure. This crowdsourced map of Canadian businesses affected by COVID-19 has already identify 107 businesses (and counting) that have permanent closed, 643 businesses very likely to close.

Main Street Insights from the Canadian Survey on Business Conditions

  • The hardest hit businesses are many of the same industries that make up our main streets, including accommodation and food services (73%), arts, entertainment and recreation (87%), and retail (72.5%).

  • Businesses in the accommodation and food services (68%) and retail trade (55%) sectors were the most likely to have laid off staff. Of those who have laid off staff, 88% and 74% of these businesses, respectively, have laid off more than half of their workforce.

  • Almost half of food sector businesses have deferred rent payments, more than double the rate for other types of businesses. The heightened impact on women, immigrant, and visible minority owned businesses also raises major questions about how the economic impact of COVID-19 may deepen existing inequality in our cities.

While main streets have been through challenges before ā€” suburbanization and gentrification, deindustrialization, economic recessions, and globalization ā€” the impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented.Ā  Failure to recover now will cause irreparable damage to the economic, entrepreneurial, and civic engine of our country.

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ā€œI see a lot of people trying to compare this to the recession caused by the 2008/9 financial crisis. I was a local business owner in 2008. That was a pothole. This is a collapsed bridge.ā€ ā€” Jon Shell, Managing Director and Partner at Social Capital Partners

While some damage is already done and more is inevitable, there is an opportunity to hasten the moment where the impacts of losing the vitality of our streets can now be more fully imagined and innovative solutions can be developed.

CUIā€™s Bring Back Main Street project is supporting this effort, in partnership a coalition of organizations, researchers, advocates, and institutions across the country. We are helping to facilitate the important conversations on the impact of COVID-19 on local main streets and small businesses, and the investment and policy changes needed to ensure that local economies and communities can survive, recover and emerge from COVID-19 more resilient than ever.

An important starting point is to establish a common understanding why main streets matter.

  • Main streets are drivers of the economyĀ ā€“ The economic stability of our country and ourĀ communitiesĀ isĀ top of mindĀ for almost everyoneĀ and a high priority forĀ all levelsĀ ofĀ government.Ā Main streets are major employment hubs that offer diverse job opportunities. They often contain significant amount of office space and are important retail destinations. Main streetsĀ alsoĀ tend to serve as incubatorsĀ for new businesses, most of which are independently owned.Ā In other words, we need our main streetsĀ to thrive in order to rebuild our local and national economies.Ā 

  • Main streets are hubs of social and cultural activity. Heritage buildings, public art, civic institutions, unique public spaces, entertainment facilities, restaurants, cafes and bars are often concentrated along main streets. They are where people go to have fun and enjoy leisurely activities, social interaction, stimulation and relaxation. When social distancing rules are lifted, citizens will be longing for social experiences, and places to safely participate cultural activity and civic life.

  • Main streets support community health and safety. When shops, services and amenities are located on a main street, they support healthy lifestyle choices such as walking and cycling. They enable greater density, adaptive re-use and lower carbon emissions. While density, walking and cycling are good policy objectives in their own right, they also minimize the need for people to use transit which may be more risky pre-vaccine, as well as limit car travel which could lead to a progressive increase in traffic and carbon emissions.

  • Main streets make communities more resilient. Main streets and the many small businesses and civic assets located on them are gathering places that support a strong sense of community. As shops and services begin to re-open, the sense of trust that people have with local retailers will help people to feel safe as they begin to re-enter retail environments.Ā  Self-sufficiency is another characteristic of a resilient community. When main streets and local businesses thrive, we can be less reliant on larger, multi-national retailers for our day-to-day needs. Money is also more likely to stay in a community when purchases are made at locally owned businesses. This is especially valuable in a time when we are vulnerable to instabilities in our global economy.

  • Main streets provide value for investment. When it comes to economic, social and cultural vitality, main streets ā€˜punch above their weightā€™. They may be small in terms of land area, but they provide significant portions of the cityā€™s tax base (usually around 10 to 15 per cent), a concentration of jobs, cultural institutions, and entertainment offerings. Big public investments, in community facilities, public realm upgrades, parks, public art in our downtowns have historically had great success in growing public confidence and stimulating local economies.Ā  As weā€™re thinking about recovery, considering value for investment will help to ensure public and private funds are used strategically to support economic growth and the vibrancy and livability of our communities.

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need resources and investment from all levels of government, financial institutions, and business owners. We need planners, non-profits, and the owners of civic assets to be engaged in the conversation. And we need to build public confidence about why we need to start at the level of the street.

Our collective way of life, and the ways we live, work, and learn from each other in our communities is at risk of being lost forever if we donā€™t target our efforts to bring back the local first.

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