The Cookstown HCD meeting (see my previous post) stressed the need to “guide” change to “preserve the essence of a community”, and underlined that people, not land, define the value of a place. I think a lot of the challenges Cookstown faces are also shared by Alcona. And I’ve come to the conclusion that we need more municipal tools to help create the kind of change we’d like to see.
Here in Alcona the Town invested millions of dollars to create the kind of attractive streetscape that would, according to planners, inspire commercial development in a designated shopping core. That work was substantially complete in 2012, and fully complete in 2013, yet 3 years later few desired results are evident. The air of frustration is evident among some Town staff as well as residents.
My own peeve is with some retail spaces that sit empty for prolonged periods, or transition briefly from one struggling business to another before falling empty again. I was startled to discover that the province requires municipalities to provide a 30% discount on property tax for most empty commercial space. This, to me, is an absurd subsidy that encourages speculators and unrealistic rents that are out of touch with market conditions. I’d say this Ontario tax policy is misguided and harmful to local economies.
Some news articles illustrate how ridiculous this tax provision is. The City of Toronto, for instance, paid out $367 million in property tax rebates between 2001 and 2013. That’s $30.5 million a year returned to landlords of idle Toronto commercial properties. Yet, this year, Toronto has a long list of “unfunded” budget priorities like $13.7 million for community housing repairs, $9.6 million for a poverty reduction program and $1.6 million to enlarge a school breakfast program in low-income areas. Does this make any sense? Shouldn’t tax policy act as an incentive to keep as many commercial spaces as possible occupied, instead of empty? Why should taxpayers subsidize the poor marketing decisions of landlords?
A speaker in Cookstown mentioned that potential developers pay close attention to the appearance of a neighbourhood, noting whether area properties look shabby, neglected, or run down. Several property owners along Alcona’s commercial core aren’t doing us any favours with their littered, overgrown frontages, and empty derelict buildings. Owners of other commercial buildings in Alcona are in no hurry, either, to find tenants.
Wasting the potential of these idle assets is stunting local grass-roots economic activity in Innisfil and all over Ontario. And, it can only be directly fixed by the Ontario government. Shouldn’t we use tax policy to discourage commercial space from sitting idle for a prolonged period? The legislature needs to remove this property tax rebate that rewards idle, wasted commercial assets. Towns all over Ontario need tax policy to guide change toward local, grassroots economic activity and revival.