By Ryan Mallough
Published by the Toronto Star on November 2, 2019
The leaves may have just turned colour in the city, but Toronto business owners are already a little sick of seeing orange, as another construction season winds down.
For most Torontonians, the seemingly neverending construction is a headache. An extra detour adding a few more minutes to the daily commute. For the small business owners operating on noisy, torn up and dusty streets, it can be a threat to their livelihoods.
In a Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) survey released last year, 65,000 businesses across the country reported that they have had issues with road work during the past five years. Some of them never manage to recover and are forced to close down. The years of work that go into bringing a business plan to life can be wiped out by just a few months of poorly planned construction projects.
Shutting down sections of streets, taking away parking options and diverting public transit routes for construction often leaves customers seeking out more accessible options. Restaurants lose patrons over noise or dust complaints during their busiest season, deliveries go missing as building access points are cut off, and trucking companies are forced to divert routes to get around the added congestion.
Will the city be better off for the Light Rail Transit project along Eglinton or a long-awaited downtown relief line in the long run? Of course. But it’s going to take time. A lot of time, and no business has a rainy-day fund to keep them going for years.
They’re going to need some help.
When neighbourhood businesses close, the neighbourhood loses part of its soul. With hundreds of businesses across the city impacted, it’s a serious problem that calls for a real solution.
Toronto needs to step up and do more to mitigate the impacts major construction projects have on small businesses, to incentivize work crews to complete projects on time and ensure better communication to address issues as they arise.
A proper construction mitigation plan starts with better planning and communication with the local business community. Businesses should be consulted with and informed well in advance of the work so they can plan accordingly and provide project design insight. This will help ensure the process is as undisruptive as possible.
In a city where construction deadlines seem more like a suggestion than an actual rule, it’s difficult for businesses to properly plan and adjust for the disruption. Do they only have to ride it out for a week or two? Or will digging last for months? The city should consider a bonus/penalty system for projects that finish early or go overtime to better incentivize construction to stick to schedule.
Improving project planning and site management wouldn’t only help local businesses – the city would come out as a winner as well. After all, the tax revenue that flows through Toronto’s businesses and into city coffers travels further and faster when it’s not taking a detour around or travelling through dirty and dusty construction sites.
Of course, improving the construction process doesn’t end at the planning stage. Local businesses need to be kept in the loop throughout the projects so there are no surprises. Having a dedicated business liaison officer actively involved throughout a major infrastructure project is key. Town halls and face-to-face drop-ins could help prevent issues like short-notice water shutdowns and ensure that equipment and debris are properly disposed of, rather than left along sidewalks or in doorways.
Improving the communication and planning process could go a long way to help businesses impacted by roadwork.
When these measures aren’t enough, Toronto should compensate businesses that take a serious loss over an extended period.
Within Canada, Toronto can look to Quebec – often a construction zone punchline – for inspiration.
In September, Quebec City joined the town of Lévis and Montreal in becoming the only cities in the country to offer financial relief of major construction disruptions. In both Quebec City and Montreal, businesses can claim up to $30,000 per year if they can show a significant hit to sales.
That kind of help can make all the difference to a small independent business weathering construction destruction.
Toronto’s infrastructure needs are only going to get bigger. It’s high time the city developed a compensation program to match and ensure that the businesses that are in for construction pain are also able to enjoy the finished project gains.
Ryan Mallough is director of provincial affairs for Ontario for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.