Opening up a business in Canada's poorest postal code "nearly impossible"

Post by Mike Klassen in


Police Line-up

Are actions of Vancouver City Hall's bureaucracy crushing the hopes of revival in the Downtown Eastside? Business people say yes.

Recently the Vancouver Sun wrote about the City's policy of requiring a criminal background check for any new business located in the Downtown Eastside. Police checks have been in place since 1993. In the Sun piece, East Hastings cheese shop owner Allison Spurrell states she is "shocked" that these kinds of strict rules are applied only in that neighbourhood.

The criminal record check will likely take between four and six weeks to go through, pushing back the opening date.

“I’m pretty offended, considering I live in the area,” Spurrell said. “A cheese shop, seriously? If I was going to put in a grow op or a crackhouse, do you think I’d spend $2.5 million in renovations on a building I’d just purchased?”

In the sixteen years since this policy has been put in place, the Downtown Eastside has become steadily worse. The criminal record checks are arguably one of the reasons why.

Spurrell comments, "It's not like there are only scumbags in Strathcona." Indeed she has a point. Literally dozens of barren street level restaurants and shops line Kingsway and other thoroughfares in Vancouver. It's believed that many of them are set up as drug money laundering operations, with the City and Revenue Canada barely taking notice. It's possible the strictness of the rules in the DTES have made it easier for the bad guys in other parts of town.

The Sun reporter couldn't get a quote from anyone from the Strathcona Business Improvement Association. If what we've learned at is true, then it is likely that the BIA reps, or any other DTES business people are terrified of crossing the City's bureaucracy.

"It's much, much worse than what the Sun reported," stated a businessperson familiar with the DTES over the last 10 years who would only speak on conditions of anonymity. "The City has effectively stifled any chance for a young, new entrepreneur from even considering the Downtown Eastside as a place to set up a business. The record checks are just one of many tools that the City uses to hinder businesses it doesn't like from getting underway."

"[Chief Licensing Inspector] Barb Windsor is quoted that no one has ever opposed the criminal record checks, which is absolutely ludicrous. It's just not true. No business takes a six to eight week delay in opening their business lightly. It would be more accurate that no one speaks up because they are scared of getting screwed by the City."

"The fact is that the City cannot legally prevent you from opening a store, but that is what they are doing. If you're a young person who wants to start a business, and Hastings Street is the only place you can afford the rent, you're completely at the mercy of the bureaucrats. The shop you want to lease might have been built 60 years ago, but if the City doesn't like what you're doing they'll crush you with building inspections. It's not possible that you can afford to bring a store built in 1939 up to 2009 building codes. Never. Very few entrepreneurs have $2.5 million to invest like the cheese shop folks, it's usually much less. Once the City doesn't like you, you just have to walk away."

Geoff "Mayor" Meggs weighs in by stating that he supports the City's policy, “This has been a preventive measure and it’s been very successful.” Maybe Mayor Meggs is right, if by "success" you mean most of your storefronts sitting empty on those streets of despair.

Our businessperson contact, who has many years working in both private business and with non-profits, says it's as though the City's license inspectors are self-appointed business cops. "It's like having a police cruiser on your tail all day long. Eventually you forget to turn on your blinker, and they pull you over. That's what it feels like for business people down here when it comes to dealing with the City's permits department."

"Maybe some of the people who wanted to open businesses here in the past were sleezeballs. But I bet the vast majority of them weren't. The arbitrary rules are stifling growth and positive change down here. The City is partly responsible for the decay and dilapidated state of this commercial district. I shouldn't have a bureaucrat telling me what kind of business I can open here. It should be my customers that tell me by not shopping at my store."

What about the criminals? Shouldn't we be making their lives more difficult? "If I break the law, then I should pay the consequences. It's as simple as that. These checks have not prevented the DTES from becoming a drug-infested sh*thole. It has prevented good people, sober people, from helping this place."


So this raises a few questions....where are the "business cops" along Kingsway St....(OK where are the bylaws and the "real cops" for these illigitimate businesses ...we all know they exist..the best example are the hydroponic supply stores with their lighting equipment and bales of soils / fertilizers from advanced nutrients!! Why dont these "grow op supply outlets" have to record addresses of their purchasers or see permits 1st from their purchasers prior to making a sale over (say $50.00?) There arent that many people growing Tomatoes inside...and one day someone innocent will be killed from the spinn off crime or grow fire...Where is the "proactive" laws to stop should be lower mainland wide for this type of business....Maybe City caucus can forward this idea to the bylaw makers...
And on the other business ideas...who says someone with a criminal record cant open or become a successful business person... who interprets that at city hall...and says yes or no...even if the cheese lady had a criminal record should that preclude her from being a business owner if shes paid her debt...and on the other side of town though its OK...sounds like a charter infringement ..

Or, perhaps, any legitimate use of the space will, by evolutionary mechanisms, force out all the organizations whose existence requires that the area be a 'disaster.'

Mind you, City Hall, and the income tax people, have always been a bit lax about interpreting 'the rules.' As a research project for senior-year undergraduates I once suggested comparing the number of telephone listings, the surnames, and the addresses in an area like, say, West Point Grey.

All those years, and all those students, and all that rent all untaxed. But, that is the creme de la creme that is not paying taxes...

This sounds like a legacy of Judy Rogers. NIST and related policing initiatives shut down a heckuva lot of DTES businesses in the 1990s. Many were indeed involved in the drug trade, but without any follow-up or even a strategy to deal with the aftermath, it created the situation today where storefront after storefront lay empty while all the drug activity is out on the street, making East Hastings more incompatible with legitimate commercial activity. There's a long history of special regulations for the DTES that has meant no payphones (lest they be used for drug deals), banishing the liquour store, a moratorium on new liquor licenses (protecting many sleazy establishments from new competition), and limiting store hours (you can buy crack 24/7, but not bread). There's probably even more that no other area in town has been subjected to, and which have ultimately backfired in terms of helping the DTES.

Anyone thinking of opening a business on the downtown eastside should undergo a thorough psychiatric evaluation. You'd have to be crazy to open a business in the middle of a cesspool.

It time for all three levels of government to be held accountable – the Feds for cuts in transfer payments to the provinces, the Provincials for closing the long-term psychiatric care facilities and their arcane & punitive welfare policies, and the City for letting the other two get away with it.

VanCitizen is right, who in their right mind would want to open a business in the DTES, unless you are in the business of charging the city millions of dollars for sub-standard housing and shelters?

In fact, anyone willing to open a business in the DTES should be given a City grant to do so. Instead, the City makes them jump through more hoops than entrepreneurs in other parts of the city. Shameful!

I also think it's time to shine a very bright light on the DTES and all organizations doing work in that area, and the costs associated with that work. Why is there no desire to do this by the City, considering how horrible the DTES keeps getting every year? All that money being dumped into that area is lining someone's pockets, and it's not the people who need it most.

It really smokes me that there are so many people who think you cannot revive communities with some enterprising spirit. I don't care how bad the DTES might appear today, if sober people of goodwill want to live and work there, then we should let them. Think of all the once war torn and marginalized neighbourhoods of the world that are just fine today. There's a future on those streets if those with a grip on the status quo would only let go.

well said laniwurm!!
that is all.

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