SDBA urges action on downtown vacancies

The Sechelt Downtown Business Association (SDBA) is once again asking council to create a derelict and vacant building bylaw, an idea the SDBA first came forward with in 2015.

“The SDBA has been approached by three businesses in the past two months to open a storefront in our downtown, but high lease rates, derelict spaces and landlords unwilling to rent their space are stopping this from happening,” SDBA president Paul Legge said in a letter reviewed by council at the Sept. 4 meeting.

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“The SDBA feel it is imperative that the [district] act now in holding landlords accountable for the upkeep, maintenance, beautification, and vacancy of their buildings and in turn the SDBA will do everything it can to work with landowners to support them in finding tenants and help with beautification in the downtown.”

Legge’s letter also said “empty and derelict buildings are negatively impacting our downtown by creating space that does not appear friendly or welcoming to local residents or our summer tourists” and claimed some buildings are poorly maintained with “water damage, vermin, and exposed wiring.”

The letter goes on to list seven vacant spaces on Cowrie Street, Wharf Avenue and Teredo that it’s concerned about.

The SDBA is suggesting three solutions: create incentives for landlords such as commercial tax breaks, beautification grants, and reduced parking requirements; a bylaw to limit the time a space can remain empty, require buildings to be inspected and brought up to code and require the owner to actively seek a tenant; and have the district work with property management companies and brokers to help “educate landlords on fair market values, negotiating lease rates, etc.”

Coun. Matt McLean, who worked as the SDBA’s executive director for a time before being elected, said he’s actually noticed a drop in the number of vacant storefronts in recent years.

“I don’t know what is an acceptable level of vacancies in the downtown, but looking at this list [in the SDBA letter], looking around downtown, I feel like we’re pretty close to that acceptable level,” he said.

McLean acknowledged that some of the vacancies have been long term and “it’s tough to know what to do about them.”

Recently released statistics show an increase in the number of business licences in Sechelt since the SDBA first brought the issue to council in 2015, from 643 that year to 919 so far in 2019, but its not clear how many of those new businesses operate out of downtown locations.

The SDBA pointed to bylaws in Chilliwack as an example, but Mayor Darnelda Siegers said she’s not sure it’s an accurate comparison. “We’re not the same size, we don’t have the same business area… We have something like four or five people who own the whole downtown, so what would the impact be?”

Chief administrative officer Andrew Yeates also noted that the Chilliwack bylaw is aimed more at targeting “derelict” buildings than regulating business vacancies.

McLean said while he doesn’t favour any of the suggestions being put forward by the SDBA, he would like to see the district consider revitalization tax exemptions. “If somebody redevelops a property and increases the value of that property, we could set a number of years where they don’t have to pay taxes on the improved value.”

Coun. Alton Toth, who is still part of the SDBA board, said he’d like to see the letter and McLean’s suggestion of a revitalization tax exemption forwarded to the Advisory Planning Commission (APC) for consideration.

Councillors voted unanimously in favour, but did not set a timeline for the APC to report back.

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