Business Walks – Abbotsford Takes A Novel Approach

Abbotsford (Business In Vancouver) -Abbotsford is the first Lower Mainland city to join a provincewide program aimed at improving conditions for local businesses.

Started in 2010 in Sacramento, California, the Business Walks program provides local officials with opportunities to meet face to face with business owners and ask questions like: How’s business? What do you like about doing business here, and how can conditions be improved?

Alexandria Mitchell, the City of Abbotsford’s economic development officer, alongside Montrose Avenue’s Three Men Telling Tales sculpture. The Business Walks program is “about building relationships for future follow-up and assistance”; Abbotsford is the latest Lower Mainland community to join the provincewide program | Rob Kruyt

“It’s a great opportunity to take the temperature of the local business community,” said Alexandria Mitchell, economic development officer for the City of Abbotsford, where volunteers visited about 200 businesses over three days in September. “We want to demonstrate that businesses in our community are valued.”

Mitchell said Abbotsford plans to make the walk an annual event to reach out to the more than 6,000 businesses located in the city.

“It’s about building relationships for future follow-up and assistance,” she said.

The Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission launched the first Canadian business walk in 2012 in the Kelowna area. Since that time, Chilliwack-based British Columbia Economic Development Association (BCEDA) has established a provincewide program.

Dale Wheeldon, president and CEO of BCEDA, said the walks help communities identify issues, challenges and opportunities businesses face. Common themes are often discovered, which can lead to effective planning.

“It’s a good opportunity for communities to gain intelligence about business opportunities,” said Wheeldon. “It’s all about building relationships between local governments, other organizations and the business community.”

Working with the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training to deliver the program, BCEDA partners with local economic development commissions, chambers of commerce, business improvement associations, First Nations, service providers, elected officials and municipal staff to form teams of walkers. Volunteers walk from business to business, asking questions to gauge the pulse of the local business community. In the last two years, 19 business walks have taken place across B.C., and 45 additional communities have expressed interest. The program focuses largely on business retention and expansion.

“With business retention, it’s making sure that you’re recognizing the value of existing businesses,” Wheeldon said. “It’s a way to connect and become more business-friendly.”

While gathering information from local business owners is important, following up on identified issues is essential for success, cautioned Wheeldon, who hopes to see the program expand further throughout the Lower Mainland and across B.C.

Corie Griffiths, the Central Okanagan Regional District’s director of economic development, said business walks are effective in helping communities retain businesses and creating an environment that supports business growth.

“It directly provides information to assist businesses in B.C.,” Griffiths said. “One key benefit is to identify businesses that need help.”

The annual Central Okanagan Business Walk, held every October, won a BCEDA Community Project of the Year award in 2012 and is now entering its fourth year. The initiative covers the areas of Lake Country, Kelowna, Westbank First Nation, West Kelowna and Peachland. Volunteers visit about 500 Central Okanagan businesses annually, leading to follow-up assistance for about 25% of the businesses relating to issues around signage, zoning, parking, human resources, succession planning, exporting and business-to-business connections.

Business walks in downtown Kelowna led directly to the rerouting of commercial trucks from Ellis Street to Gordon Drive to keep the heavy flow of trucks away from downtown.

Angie Bricker, owner of Georgie Girl Vintage, a women’s consignment clothing store on Ellis Street, said rerouting trucks away from downtown has decreased noise pollution while increasing esthetics on the popular street lined with businesses and condominiums.

“We’re only a few blocks from the lake, so it was inevitable for that to happen,” said Bricker, who sits on the Downtown Kelowna Association’s board of directors and has volunteered as a walker.•

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