Many businesses in downtown Barrie are thriving and would be a great subject for a profile piece, but what about the business of Downtown Barrie itself?
It is the job of a Business Improvement Area (BIA) to do just that for a city, improve the area. The Downtown Barrie Business Improvement Area (BIA) is one of over 300 BIAs in the province trying to get residents to work, play and shop in what used to be called “Main Street Canada”. Craig Stevens is the BIA’s Managing Director of not only Barrie’s local organization, but is also the Vice President of the Ontario BIA Association (OBIAA), which oversees the over 300 such local organizations in the province.
“The essence of the BIA is to promote the area and market it to let people know that downtowns are here,” said Stevens. “It is also to facilitate events and not just our own, but also those put on by outside organizations that are using the area in which we oversee; whether that is through promotion, sponsorship or even to help with the logistics of it. By sponsoring events put on by the Theatre By The Bay or the Barrie Film Festival for example, it in turn brings people down here and maybe they grab a bite to eat or do some shopping which is great for the surrounding businesses.”
In the grand timeline of the origins of cities in Ontario, a BIA is rather new, with the idea having only come up in the 1970’s. Malls and plazas in the suburbs were starting to draw people away from what had always been the centre of a town and the heart of a shopping district. As cities grew in population, more and more people became spread out and businesses popped up to cater to them. Stevens said the history of it all came about from necessity rather than vanity.
“The first BIA was actually in the famous Bloor Street West, it was the first in the world,” said Stevens. “A group of property owners got together and saw that crowds were dwindling and no one was coming to their part of town anymore. It was a plan to not only bring people back but to also save businesses and properties. So they started to enhance the area, and not just with flashy businesses or great deals in the stores, but the little things; flower pots, banners and benches were added or upgraded to be more appealing to the eye. We have done the same thing here with upgrades and such along with the addition of events and attractions; so far the feedback has been positive and we have seen a great increase in attendance to the area.”
Stevens is speaking from years of experience in the city as the 44-year-old has long called Barrie home and also gone through the trials and tribulations of being a business owner in the city by the Bay. Attending Assikinack Public School and then Innisdale Secondary, Stevens went away for university only to then come back and run the Running Room and then a kids clothing store with his wife.
“I was operating and managing the Running Room in about 1999 down here on the main street and then my wife and I opened a kids clothing store,” said Stevens. “I have seen both sides of success with a downtown business as the Running Room was hugely successful when I left and is doing so well now, where because of personal issues our clothing store was a bit of a mess when we closed. That’s the other thing too, people see a shop close and think well that didn’t work and the area is failing; but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I still say there is space for a kids clothing store down here, but we had just had our third child and we were juggling many things. Something had to go and we decided it was to be the shop. That’s what makes me really push this BIA initiative, I know how business isn’t always just business and there are a bunch of stories behind every store window.”
The success of the Barrie BIA may be attributed to how Stevens and his team run it; like a business itself. Instead of the chaotic mindset that the area is made up of approximately 435 businesses, the BIA pictures itself more as Downtown Barrie Inc.
“We sat down one day and planned how we would be moving forward and realized that if we took all the employment of all the businesses here we would be the number one private employer in the city just in terms of the number of employees,” said Stevens. “When you take all the public employers in the city, with the county, the hospital and those types of public employers, we are the fourth largest of that sector in the area. So we make our plan to be that of a business and how do we now make our business thrive, and we’re happy to say it’s been working.”
The goal of getting people to the downtown area not includes huge events like Promenade Days, The Santa Claus Parade (Noella Festival) and the Craft Beer and BBQ Festival but also the little events like press conferences in designated shops and trails that take people from business to business earning stamps on a passport while getting them to buy local. All of the work that goes into the collaboration needed to pull off these events may seem monumental at times, but Stevens is proud of how the many groups work together; something not necessarily common around the province.
“This Saturday is Santa Claus Parade and that is a big undertaking as we are working with the Rotary Club of Barrie, The City of Barrie and the Barrie Chamber of Commerce,” said Stevens. “This is one of many festivals where numerous groups in the city come together and put on a an amazing event for everyone and no one worries about who gets credit or putting in the little work; big things like this are a real team effort and truthfully its not always that way around Ontario.”
The next BIA monthly initiative starts this Saturday during the Santa Claus Parade as Holly Days begins. From November 18 to December 17, purchases can be made at participating locations and you can be entered in a draw for a chance to win a prize package worth over $2,500.
For more details on this and all that the Barrie BIA does, check out their website at or follow on social media at