The plight of the city’s downtown business community has prompted a business owner to protest and not pay his business licence for the last five years.
The last time Trail Awards and Promotions owner Roger Catalano paid his $90 annual business licence fee was in 2007.
He now owes the city $450 in fees, but he wanted the infamy of being the second most delinquent business owner to be his soapbox for a greater issue: the ailing local economy.
Catalano used the occasion of his notoriety to write a letter to council—a response to a city letter requesting the negligent fees—decrying the fact city council has not taken “any action what so ever” in the loss of 16 downtown businesses in the last few years.
He accused the city of not keeping tabs on what was happening in the local economy, and that the first signs of trouble began five years ago when businesses began closing.
“We are in a dilemma of losing all businesses in the downtown,” the former city councillor (1999-2003) and business owner of 65 years, said. “This is not personal, but a wake up call from a business.”
He called for the dissolution of the business licence, removal of parking meters, and re-instatement of the Business Improvement Area (BIA). The BIA was instrumental in drawing attention to the downtown in the past, said Catalano, and it is needed again.
The BIA would identify and pursue additional businesses to include into the downtown core, and help promote the ones that do exist.
It would work independently from the Downtown Opportunities and Action Committee (DOAC)—an arm’s length city committee struck to redevelop the feel of the downtown—a body that Catalano questioned.
“With 16 empty spaces in its core, what is the sense of bringing people into the downtown when we have all of these empty stores? What is here for them when they come?” he asked.
City councillor Kevin Jolly defended the work being done by the current DOAC in laying the groundwork for a beautiful and enticing downtown as “necessary.”
He also pointed to an ongoing exploration of a bylaw under the Community Charter that would allow the city to exempt properties that are improving their premises from paying extra taxes associated with a higher assessment.
That move is part of council’s plan to foster a positive environment for growing businesses and a local economy, he said.
“It’s not government’s job to open businesses. It’s our job to create conditions where businesses can succeed. That’s what we believe we are doing,” he said.
Although Jolly refuted the notion the $90 business licence fee was an onerous cost for a business, and that parking meters were also a deterrent for downtown shoppers, he pointed to larger forces at work that have hampered the success of Trail’s downtown core.
“I don’t think retail is the same as it was 10 years ago,” he said. “Frankly, we’ve had some big challenges with the North American economy, and that is not something exclusive to Trail. We finally do feel it. There are positive things happening, but you can’t ignore the impacts of a global economic slow down. They do affect smaller cities.”
He pointed to other communities in Western Canada and within the West Kootenay as also having the same trouble with their downtown cores. Councillor Gord DeRosa agreed.
“We all do recognize the devolution of the downtown core, and the expected migration to big box stores. We understood that, we half expected that, but how do you offset it?” he said.
For its part in fostering the local economy, DeRosa said the city does have an economic development committee that sends out invitations to commercial ventures that may be interested in setting up shop in Trail.
“But if the business case is ultimately not here, the answer is, ‘No.’” said DeRosa.
So Catalano will continue with his licence fee protest until he gains an audience with council.
“The business licence is a faulty thing; it has no teeth, and there’s nothing they can do about (people not paying),” he said.
City corporate administrator Michelle McIsaac agreed. The city can’t apply delinquent business licence fees against property taxes, nor can they shut a business down if they refuse to pay.
However, on July 16 city council approved doubling the penalty for those who were felonious in paying the fee—from $25 to $50—and noted they had sent letters to 13 Trail businesses who had not paid, asking them to do so or face the new fine.
But if that coercion is not effective, the city will take steps with a solicitor to determine a proper course of legal action.
McIsaac noted that the business licence bylaw contained a whole section on revoking a licence, but if a business doesn’t have a valid licence to begin with municipal government cannot threaten to revoke a licence.
“Really, we want to have a good relationship with our business community. We don’t want to take a heavy-handed approach,” McIsaac said. “We don’t want to visit them and issue tickets. We want these businesses to remain in operation with a valid licence.”
For the most part the business community is cooperative, she said, but a few have fallen through cracks and require follow up. And it was conceivable that a few businesses on the most wanted list were no longer operating, and they hadn’t taken the steps to notify the city.