The DTES’s New Business Improvement Association

Street banners and park benches take a back seat at the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association.

Wes Regan, Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association | BCBusiness
Wes Regan is tasked with changing the face of Vancouver’s $360 million Downtown Eastside.

Street banners and park benches take a back seat at the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association.

If you’re after a study in contrasts, let the stretch of Hastings Street between Main and Cambie be your muse. These few blocks are the trenches where the rich and poor do battle. On this wet January afternoon, a hipster type kisses his girl goodbye outside a newly-opened café. The lovers part to make room for a scruffy man riding a bicycle piled high with boxes, baskets and bags. A green vacuum cleaner balances on the back rack. “Now that’s a spicy meatball!” he yells and pedals off down the sidewalk.

Minutes later I find Wes Regan in the neon glow of a resurrected butcher shop. Dressed on the casual side of business casual, the 32-year-old is a big, friendly man with a firm handshake and a quick step who came to the city 14 years ago from Inuvik, via Kelowna. We head out for a stroll of the area and he explains the challenge at hand: to revitalize the neighbourhood by bringing money in without pushing existing residents out. It’s a tough gig for the only full-time staffer at the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association, the city’s newest BIA and one built around Canada’s own Battle of Hastings. 

“We see a lot of real change coming and some people are concerned about that and some people are really eager to see that,” he says diplomatically as we walk east toward Main Street. “People call this skid row, the poorest postal code in Canada. But right now there’s about $360 million in property value here.”

On the surface, it’s a classic BIA setup: after area surveys found broad support from local businesses, the city carved out an oddly shaped puzzle piece between Gore Avenue and Richards Street not yet served by any of the adjacent BIAs. The new association’s bulk lies along Hastings, but appendages stretch north to Alexander and south to Dunsmuir streets. All property owners inside the association’s jagged boundaries are de-facto members and pay an annual levy rate of 40 cents per $1,000 of their property’s commercial value, a collection plate Regan has leveraged to some $160,000 for 2012.

Normally, much of this money would be spent on beautification projects such as property maintenance, gutter cleaning, graffiti removal and installation of park benches, lights and banners. Those will happen in time, Regan says. For now it’s about pounding the pavement in search of members and partners. On paper, more than 300 businesses exist in the area, but so far just 70 have taken an active role since the BIA went live in April 2011.

Then there’s the policy of inclusivity. Traditional business improvement strategies remain on the table, but this BIA’s constitution says those improvements must also create jobs for local residents.

One of the people behind the Hastings Crossing BIA mandate is Brian Smith, a director and one of the association’s architects dating back to his former role as business and social enterprise developer at Building Opportunities with Business (BOB). BOB is a non-profit that was created through the Vancouver Agreement, an accord signed in 2000 committing all three levels of government to tackle economic, social and health issues in the Downtown Eastside. For BOB, that meant using funds from Western Economic Diversification Canada to juggle business development and job creation through loans, grants and deals with social entrepreneurs who train and hire area residents.

By the time the bulk of BOB’s funding dried up in 2010, Smith had found allies in local businesses and city officials keen to see the work continue. He insists this was never about charity and that an inclusive model of development remains crucial to the future prosperity of the area, which (for better or worse, depending on whom you ask) cannot be gentrified in the traditional way of tearing down and rebuilding, then waiting for the poor to be priced out.

“One has to accept social housing isn’t going anywhere. It’s provincially owned or city-owned land and all those housing units, all those SROs, aren’t going anywhere,” says Smith. “But graffiti removal, recyclables, security, catering, all of those are existing social enterprises. If you hire them, that money stays in the neighbourhood and there’s a multiplier effect. You’re also paying businesses that hire low-income people and people with mental illnesses and other challenges. That combats the notion of gentrification.”

It sounds a bit quixotic in a world where money carries the biggest stick, but former City of Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian insists social inclusion is rooted in a smart and very simple business strategy: if your neighbours are too poor to buy your products, you have to help them make money before your business can make money.

“When you start to train and capacity-build within the neighbourhood, you’re fostering your own potential clientele,” Toderian said over the phone in January, prior to his dismissal in February. “So it’s very progressive.”

Back on the street, Regan and I walk down the steps of Victory Square, a site that launches Regan into an animated reverie of possibilities: street festivals, market gardens, interactive story­telling modules, partnerships with surrounding educational institutions. 

Some of those are slated to happen later this summer. For the moment, Regan is still managing a public relations crisis. “We need to dispel some of the myths that this neighbourhood is as dangerous as some people think it is,” he says. “People worry they’ll step on needles or get pickpocketed. But what’s most dangerous here are the images of poverty and struggle that confront people with certain internal issues 
of their own.”