Victoria mayor seeks tax break for ailing Government Street

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is floating the idea of a property tax exemption for some property owners along Government Street to combat a spate of retail vacancies that have left one of the city’s main streets full of empty store-fronts.

Helps, who expects the idea will face opposition, said it’s time for the city to be bold.

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“Our downtown could use some love, care and attention,” said Helps, who handed credit to Langford Mayor Stew Young for reducing several fees and introducing a tax holiday to encourage economic activity and revitalize that city’s core.

“We need to take some risks and have bold actions. Otherwise, we will be in the same place we are now,” she said.

The idea has not yet come before Victoria council.

Helps said she believes offering a five-year tax break to property owners on a stretch of Government — from the waterfront to Yates Street — would result in reduced rents and help fill the vacancies.

“The city has a tool that it’s never put to use before, an economic revitalization tax exemption. It would need to be done carefully and strategically,” she said.

“I know people will freak out when they hear that, people will say it will draw businesses from other parts of downtown … but I don’t think that’s played out in other places,” she said.

“We have very limited policy tools available as a municipal government and I think we need to put what we do have to work.”

That kind of experiment would be welcomed by the business community, said Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce chief executive Bruce Carter.

Carter said the city “should at least consider” the Langford example as one of a suite of steps to revitalize a stretch of road that has eight high-profile vacancies within five blocks.

“Government Street should be a focal point,” he said. “And government has a role to play [in its revitalization].”

Downtown Victoria Business Association general manager Ken Kelly said tax breaks could be a solution. “We have had those discussions in the past. The city has contemplated incentives and they have worked successfully [elsewhere], but we have to ensure we have a clear vision of what this downtown is going to be and how we are going to go about doing it,” he said.

Carter said the city should also continue efforts to increase the number of people downtown by attracting visitors, improving policing and public safety, and being more welcoming to developers.

Developer Stan Sipos, who has a rezoning application before the city for the Canada Customs building at 816 Government St., the foot of the commercial part of Government Street, said the street is as dead as he has ever seen it.

“What’s been happening is a slow destruction, it’s the death by slow cuts,” he said, noting offices moving to the Selkirk waterway area was the start of the street’s demise.

Sipos said it’s essential to get more people onto Government Street, and to have a diverse and unique mix of retailers to cater to them. “Otherwise, all those empty storefronts are a harbinger of what could be,” he said.

Sipos sees the redevelopment of 816 Government St. as a catalyst for change. He’s planning a mixed-use building with 86 units of residential above commercial space, where he vows to have unique tenants.

“There’s a renaissance occurring, but it’s not fast,” he said of new developments dotting downtown. “But I’m optimistic.”

Helps said she didn’t want to “pre-suppose what council will do” as it lays out its strategic plan, but for her economic revitalization is a priority. “And my gut tells me, start with Government Street,” she said.

Helps and council will soon also be considering a proposal from a group led by John Vickers to turn Government Street into a pedestrian mall for at least part of this summer.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

 

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