11/16/2016 08:04 EST | Updated 11/16/2016 08:04 EST

Small Businesses Offer Huge Benefits For Toronto

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Toronto city skyline at sunset

Toronto is a City of Neighbourhoods. Each block - each street - has its quirks, its idiosyncrasies, and its own individual, immutable charm.

Residents take pride in their neighbourhoods, and show it. Some neighbourhoods -- like Cabbagetown -- have their own flags. Others, like the Danforth, have their own signature street festivals. One -- the Republic of Rathnelly -- felt so much pride that it even declared independence!

That sense of place doesn't spring from nothing. It arises from the conscious effort of residents, community groups and others.

Ahead of this year's holiday shopping season, it's time we recognized one of the key players in building up neighbourhoods' identities: small businesses.

Small businesses add so much to the communities in which we live, work and play. Not only do they provide the day-to-day services we all rely on, they help build us up: they create a sense of place, of local identity. In short, they help make a grid of streets a neighbourhood.

One of the major ways small businesses build our city up is through their local Business Improvement Area (BIA). BIAs -- associations of businesses with the responsibility for promoting local retail -- were born right here in Toronto, as small retail businesses in Bloor West Village decided to work together to beautify their street and market themselves to the surrounding community.

Since then, BIAs -- following the same model -- have sprung up to represent some of Toronto's most iconic neighbourhoods: Bloor-Yorkville, the Kingsway, the Annex. They have contributed to civic 'greening' efforts, organized street festivals, and even gotten involved in infrastructure planning, helping shape the conversation through which we build a thriving, more livable city.

This proven track record of success is why the City of Toronto has a long-standing policy of promoting local retail, and helping small businesses grow and succeed -- particularly as Canadians look more and more to the internet to do their shopping.

Part of this support is the City's participation in Shop The Neighbourhood, an initiative organized by Yellow Pages to support small-scale retail. In previous years, this has been a one-day event on the Saturday between Black Friday and Cyber Monday - a particularly busy weekend for shopping that has a tendency to drive dollars away from our communities - to encourage residents to make local purchases. This year, Shop The Neighbourhood is being celebrated year-round.

We're also helping small businesses modernize to attract more customers. Together with the Toronto Association of BIAs and our partners in the private sector, the City of Toronto launched "Digital Main Street": an online portal that will allow Toronto small businesses - some of which are fixtures of their communities, and have been operated by the same owners for decades - receive a free digital assessment, and find out how they can better use technology to meet their business goals.

Enterprise Toronto -- a one-stop source, operated by the City, to help small businesses start up and grow -- has also developed a series of digital marketing workshops, proven to help entrepreneurial Torontonians build up their brand and their customer base. These have proven so successful that they have been delivered across the country.

Each of these individual initiatives is important. But the real test of small business support is your day-to-day shopping habits: where do you choose to buy your groceries? To get your coffee? To run your errands?

Because small businesses are, first and foremost, businesses. They require customers to contribute everything they do to our city. The beautification investments that BIAs make are paid for by their members. The taxes they pay, that fund critical public services, come out of their revenue. The jobs they create must be sustained by a reliable base of customers.

Our small, street-level businesses contribute so much to our city -- so much that we sometimes take them for granted. But we shouldn't.

This Black Friday and Cyber Monday (the unofficial launch of the holiday shopping season), I'm issuing a challenge to Torontonians:

Understand what your local retailer contributes to your neighbourhood. And then make a conscious choice to support it, so they can continue to make your community great. Because if we want to remain a City of Neighbourhoods, we can't make one local purchase, once per year. We need to support our small businesses every day.

Councillor Michael Thompson

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