Grand Forks, B.C., is filling up its vacant retail spaces via a unique economic development idea

Lessons on how a little city in the Boundary Country of the West Kootenay changed its image and attracted small businesses

Downtown Grand Forks

The Grand Forks Downtown Business Association pulled off a unique idea to fill vacant retail spaces in the downtown core. — Madeline Joanne Williams photo

Alf Him was upset when he walked past all the vacant retail spaces on Market Avenue in Grand Fork’s downtown core. As co-owner of The Board Room Café and co-chair of the Grand Forks Downtown Business Association (DBA), he wondered how to recruit businesses to his beloved community.

But suddenly he had an idea! The city could recruit new retail businesses to downtown Grand Forks by paying their rental leases for the first six months. As a business owner himself, Him knows the value of small business.

“As is the case in most of rural B.C., small businesses play a crucial role in Grand Forks and the surrounding region: they employ local citizens and are an economic engine that enables cash to flow through the regional economy. In addition to contributing to the uniqueness of Grand Forks, they build a sense of community,” he said.

And as a businessman, Him means business! He immediately started working on his idea with the assistance of Deb Baker, who owns the Grand Forks Funeral Home and Cremation Centre and is the other co-chair of the DBA. (Every business within the downtown commercial core is an honorary member of the DBA, and there are no membership fees.)

The rent subsidy program would be open to any retail business that would enhance the shopping experience of the downtown buying public. Other beneficiaries would be landowners filling up their vacant rental locations as well as other businesses benefiting from increased downtown traffic.

Hard work and teamwork brought this idea to fruition in just five weeks, and the program was called “Grand Forks: The Place to Grow Your Business.”

“We were able to bring an idea to a media release and the posting of the RFP (request for proposals) within the first five weeks,” said Him.

The past troubles in Grand Forks

First, one has to understand a bit of the background of Him and the city of Grand Forks, B.C., with 4,100 residents (or 7,000 if the rural areas are included).

Him first moved to Grand Forks in 1977. He and his daughter, Savanna, opened The Boardroom Café in 2017.

Then came 2018, and Grand Forks was hit by devastating floods. Fortunately, the provincial and federal governments joined the City of Grand Forks and committed to spending up to $55 million to rebuild infrastructure and to refurbish the riverbank. The work is to be completed by 2023.

Alf Him, inside The Board Room Café, which he co-owns with his daughter, Savanna.

Alf Him, a retired business owner, was the mastermind of the initiative “Grand Forks: The Place to Grow Your Business.” He is shown here inside The Board Room Café, which he co-owns with his daughter, Savanna. — Photo courtesy Alf Him

But the flooding has taken a toll on businesses and residents—with some leaving the city. Thus, Him’s idea included reframing the image of Grand Forks.

“There was a desire to showcase the sense of community, strength and resiliency of the downtown core,” Him said. “'We are more than just a flood.

“The downtown business community has demonstrated true grit and determination in the face of significant economic disruption over the past few years and is now looking to the future with optimism.”

Needed partners and the RFPs

The Grand Forks Downtown Business Association needed funding for the program, and so they brought in four funding partners: the City of Grand Forks, Community Futures Boundary (CFDC), Grand Forks District Credit Union (GFCU) and the Boundary Country Regional Chamber of Commerce (BCRCC). The DBA itself contributed $7,500.

The next step was to inventory the downtown for vacancies, and the DBA identified seven retail spaces available, ranging from 230 to 5,400 square feet (the largest space had an additional 1,100 square feet of storage). Thus, the six landlords of the seven spaces were added as partners.

Him was very conscious of the timing.

“There is a small window of opportunity available at this time that would satisfy the needs of the landlords and the successful business applicants,” he said.

The DBA partnered with the City to draft the RFP, which was released on August 11, 2020, and closed September 4, 2020.

The heart of the RFP stated: “The DBA welcomes retail businesses that will add to the vibrancy, shop-local culture and pedestrian-friendly feel of our downtown core.”

All proposals had to include the following information:

  • business type (new or established)
  • desired floor space
  • desired lease payments
  • desired term of lease
  • ability to pay damage deposits
  • ability to pay utility costs

How the program was promoted

The marketing strategy of Grand Forks: The Place to Grow Your Business was to change the narrative of the city from its watery past to its future potential.

The promotion began with the production of a music video by Him’s son-in-law, Justin Hines, called Say What You Will, which featured many Grand Fork residents. The video was donated to the City of Grand Forks and has been used in many of the city’s promotions.

The music video with Justin Hines, Say What You Will, showcases many happy residents of Grand Forks who express their gratitude for family, friends and community.

In August 2020, the program was advertised with a media release from the DBA. With much assistance from two of the funding partners—CFDC and BCRCC—the story was picked up by regional and national media.

“The initiative also received the recognition of being the fourth most discussed story amongst the municipalities in Canada; as per my conversation with Daniel Drexler, a Corporate Officer for the City of Grand Forks,” said Him.

The main message was clear and compelling: “We are seeking dynamic, community-oriented businesses who want to work, live and play in a rural community like Grand Forks,” said Alf Him of the DBA. “We are proud of the success our downtown businesses have had despite significant adversity and want to continue to build on this by recruiting new business that will add to the vibrancy, shop-local culture, pedestrian-friendly feel of our downtown core.”

Success of the downtown program

The initiative piqued a lot of interest, with requests from Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna, Okanagan Falls, Trail, Nelson, Cranbrook, Calgary and Lethbridge.

“In total, we received 22 requests requiring further information and clarification,”  said Him in the initiative’s Success Report.

The program received eight completed proposals. The five-member selection committee comprised individuals from the funding partners.

The Selection Committee’s top choice was AquaGro Garden Supplies from Kelowna, B.C., which “best exemplified the ‘Grand Forks: The Place to Grow Your Business’ initiative.” AquaGro Garden Supplies requested the largest space available listed within the RFP. This location is the site of the previous Dollar Store, which had been vacant since the flood of 2018. AquaGro and Joe Krulic, the current landowner, reached an agreement, and the store opened in November 2020.

Another business—Holistic Cosmetology Medicine—was chosen to be funded by the DBA but decided to buy a building and thus proceed on its own.

And Him had more good news in the Success Report: “Of the seven locations there are only three left and these are currently under negotiation. One was a proposal that was not selected and the second was from a person who requested information but did not submit a proposal.

“Since the start of the initiative there have also been people who have purchased vacant buildings. I also started a Facebook page listing all buildings for sale and spaces for lease, which has shown a lot of success. I have received a lot of emails from people asking for more info.”

One of the businesses that submitted a proposal opened without the support of the initiative—The First Spot.

And, as of the end of February, Him had even more news: “I have just received requests for two new businesses, a butcher/deli and a used furniture store. Hopefully, this will come to fruition.”

Based on all of the inquiries during the entire process, Him feels the program is definitely a success and transferable to other communities.

“I have had a few conversations with dignitaries of other communities and found there are a lot of similarities with rural cities in trying to recruit businesses to their towns and trying to find a correct balance of retail businesses within their core,” he said.

“The program exceeded our expectations, and changed the narrative of our town from the 'Flood Capital of B.C. to a Picturesque City in B.C.’ ”

Virginia Rasch

Virginia is a writer and editor with KPI Media. She is an avid outdoor recreationist in all seasons and has lived in the Kootenays for over 15 years. With degrees in the natural sciences, she has worked as a tour guide, an environmentalist, a writer, and an editor of books and scientific publications. Virginia now brings her passion for everything green to KootenayBiz. View all of Virginia Rasch’s articles

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