Toronto’s main street retail stores need help now, from all of us

The city pivoted to allow for curbside restaurants, and that creativity needs to be applied to retail stores

Karen Stintz is a former city councillor, elected in 2003, and was a chair of the TTC. She lives in Ward 8.

It must have been agonizing for retailers on main streets throughout Toronto to hear that they would not be able to open their doors for the holiday shopping period. The decision to close personal services and street-level retail was made by Toronto Public Health to slow the spread of COVID with the objective being to keep people at home. That objective was tested when people continued holiday shopping throughout the Greater Toronto Area where permitted.

Retailers pushed back with an open letter to public health and the government that the spread of COVID as a result of retail shopping was one per cent and there were better policy options available to stop the spread.

Curbside pickup is not a solution. Curbside pickup works when shoppers know exactly what they want and can order it online. For many independent shops, it was a challenge to build a web presence that could compete with the chains.

Now, with the new year upon us and a vaccine being administered, there is new hope for small business, but retailers and restaurants on our main streets need help and support. The empty storefronts are not just bad for the local economy, they are bad for neighbourhoods.

The city has a goal to create a 15-minute city, which means that amenities are available to the community within a short walk. There is no question that the most desirable communities are those that have a range of amenities within walking distance.

There are several things the city can consider to support our main streets and allow retailers to be open with sufficient safety protocols in place to be able to serve the public. One example would be to permit retailers to have sidewalk sales and even close lanes of traffic on a monthly basis to create pedestrian malls. The city has been nimble in responding to new ideas to create space and needs to apply this creativity to the recovery of retail.

The city administration also needs to streamline the process for new businesses to get all required permits to operate quickly because delays are costly. Property taxes for main street retailers are notoriously high, whereas the city keeps residential taxes low. This model will need refinement because commercial real estate is under significant pressure. All levels of government will need to support local business in the short and medium-term through tax deferrals, rent subsidies and wage supports.

However, the community has the strongest role to play in support of local business. The Shop Local campaign has begun, and neighbours need to consider how local retailers can meet their needs.

Local retailers are in our neighbourhoods because they know our communities. They provide us with both essential and non-essential items. They know us and our families. They employ local people. They are the lifeblood of healthy neighbourhoods.

Governments can only do so much. The rest is up to us.

Article exclusive to TRNTO