Introduction to Business Improvement Areas

Historical context – the Bloor West Village BIA

In 1970, responding to a request by a Toronto business association, Ontario passed enabling legislation to create the world’s first Business Improvement Area (BIA) in Bloor West Village. Previously relying on voluntary contributions for its projects, the newly-created Bloor West Village BIA could now rely on a steady stream of revenue from a new city levy, made possible under the legislation, for long-term planning to improve the area. Every business within its boundaries contributed to the levy. (For a detailed account, see Appendix F.)

Since the creation of this first BIA, many more have been established. Now there are more than 270 BIAs in Ontario, varying in size from fewer than 60 business and property owners to more than 2000. The BIA concept is now global, adopted by more than 500 communities across Canada, 2000 throughout the United States, and thousands more around the world including Europe, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

What is a BIA?

A Business Improvement Area (BIA) is a “made-in-Ontario” innovation that allows local business people and commercial property owners and tenants to join together and, with the support of the municipality, to organize, finance, and carry out physical improvements and promote economic development in their district.

Traditionally, a BIA is a body established by a municipality using the specific business improvement area provisions in the Municipal Act, 2001 . It is governed by a board of management. In this handbook, the term traditional BIA is used to generally describe such a body.

Business and property owners or others can request that a BIA be designated by a municipal bylaw. BIAs are local entities. The legislation states they are local boards.

People also refer to the geographic area designated by a municipality for a BIA as the BIA.

BIA membership and funding

Once a traditional BIA is approved by municipal council, businesses within its boundaries become members and pay the BIA levy along with their property taxes. A traditional BIA view is that this structure reflects the principle that all who benefit should be required to bear their fair share of the cost of the program. In addition, the arrangement provides a secure source of funding for BIA activities.

In addition, many BIAs undertake modest or extensive public and private fundraising to raise funds for special events or activities.

Functions of a BIA

The general functions of a traditional BIA are to:

  • oversee the improvement, beautification and maintenance of municipally-owned land, buildings and structures in the area beyond that provided at the expense of the municipality generally
  • promote the area as a business or shopping area

Chapter 19 of the Toronto Municipal Code*, which was substantially changed in 2007, lists additional BIA functions.  They include, among others:

  • to maintain business improvement area-initiated streetscaping and capital assets within the business improvement area
  • to offer graffiti and poster removal services respecting building facades visible from the street, to all member property owners who provide written consent, upon approval of the program by the general membership of the business improvement area
  • to undertake safety and security initiatives within the business improvement area
  • to undertake strategic planning necessary to address business improvement area issues
  • to advocate on behalf of the interests of the business improvement area

*  The City of Toronto Municipal Code is a compilation of city bylaws arranged in chapters by subject.  Chapter 19 deals with BIAs.

Examples of BIA activities


BIAs often provide enhancements in a business area to create a more pleasant atmosphere for local businesses and neighbouring residential areas. The most common way is streetscape improvement through the addition of customer-friendly lighting, signage, street furniture, planters, banners and sidewalk treatments as well as seasonal decorations.

Revitalization and maintenance

BIAs can help to revitalize, improve and maintain physical infrastructure as well as help make an area cleaner and safer. Approaches have ranged from working towards brownfield redevelopment and building façade restoration to graffiti removal and enhanced street cleaning and garbage receptacles.

Marketing and promotion

To retain and expand its customer base, a BIA may encourage both local residents and others to shop and use services within the local commercial district through marketing and promotional activities.

Special events

BIAs often organize and work with community partners to hold special events to promote and showcase their businesses. Examples include holding a street dance, music, theatre or dance festival, food fair, arts and crafts exhibition, art studio tour, fashion show, ethnic/cultural celebration and seasonal carnival or parade as well as establishing a local farmers’ market.

Business recruitment

BIAs often work with commercial or industrial property owners to help ensure that available space is occupied, and that an optimum business and service mix is achieved and maintained.


BIAs can act as a voice for the business community and often establish important relationships with other community voices, such as city council, municipal departments, local community groups (schools, churches, citizen groups, etc.) and institutions (chambers of commerce, committees of council, etc.). The BIA forum can be used to convey community concerns to council and help prompt council to pursue policies and activities to promote and strengthen the community and its unique identity. Likewise, it can provide a feedback mechanism for council issues.

Who may benefit from a BIA?

Business operators

All businesses in the area, whether retail, professional, dining, entertainment or finance, may gain advantages from the improved local atmosphere and ambience that a successful BIA helps to create. Improvements and activities may retain more local customers and attract more visitors. Cost savings to members may result from improved integration of capital funding and promotional activities.

Property owners

BIA-initiated improvements and activities may help to create and sustain a more vibrant economic environment within an area, which may lead to an increased demand for retail and office space, a decrease in commercial vacancy rates and an increase in property values.

Surrounding neighbourhoods

A BIA may improve quality of life in surrounding neighbourhoods through physical improvements as well as enhanced ambience, choices in local shopping and professional services, job opportunities, cleanup and safety programs, and community get-togethers.

The wider community

Fostering local economic development and revitalization in an area can stimulate new impetus for tourism and investment in the wider community. Increased business activity can improve both the municipal and sales tax base and support public services of benefit to all. Fostering community engagement can strengthen and build community interest, spirit, pride and networks well beyond the boundaries of a BIA.