Alison Karim-McSwiney, Member of the Institute of Place Management, is the Executive Director with the International Avenue Revitalization Zone (INTAVE BRZ) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is a graduate of the University of Calgary and is certified as an International Place Manager (UK). She has 20 years of experience as a place manager and is the recipient of many awards. Her recent successes include securing land for an art centre and $176 million for the multimodal redesign and infrastructure improvements along the business high street with affordability and inclusivity as key components. Alison has been instrumental in bringing innovative community initiatives to International Avenue. The Calgary Herald chose her as a one of the top New Mavericks of Alberta.
Alison Karim-McSwiney, you are the executive director of International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ). What is International Avenue and what do your tasks involve?
Alison Karim-McSwiney: As the founding Executive Director my tasks have been pretty much everything. Planning, marketing, crime prevention, special events, member relations, place-making, development, business retention, recruitment, non-profit management, community advocate, fund developer and innovator. International Avenue is a primary goods area with over 415 businesses which range from multinationals to small family run shops.
You have worked for International Avenue for two decades now. Do you find that your challenges have changed significantly? How has your worked evolved over time?
Alison Karim-McSwiney: When I was first hired, I remember thinking how on earth can I market a place, which is crime-ridden, where the area is so marginalized and the problems prolific. Our initial strategy was to bring the community together with a large event to show pride. Work to create business crime prevention programs including the very first business block watch in Western Canada. The infrastructure was substandard and it became apparent that this area was not a priority for the municipality. The City, pretty much in my mind, was ghettoizing the area. Anything that would be controversial in other parts of the City often slipped in here unchallenged. Pro-liferation of negative uses was prevalent.
“International Avenue is a primary goods area with over 415 businesses which range from multinationals to small family run shops.”
We went about the task of reviewing planning documents that ruled the area and found because the area was huge, over 35 blocks (4 Km) and with a population of 50,000 residents along the borders of the street, that the documents were out dated, or non-consistent and in some parts of the long strip, non-existent. No cohesive document existed for street as a whole. On further examination, the main plan for the street the City had going forward was to essentially turn it into a high-speed roadway which would cut off the access of residents to the businesses with a plan of over 26 road closures thus largely eradicating businesses at the same time. In discussing this with City officials, we were told that our area was not on the radar and that no planning help would be available. The Board of Directors proved to be a benevolent bunch, which allowed my Team to tackle the social issues, as well as the myriad of other issues, affecting our business area.
“Our group decided to “put the forest in Forest Lawn” with a tree planting project of 300 trees along the street.”
We took small steps to get us there. A landscape plan and strategy to move us to the ultimate vision of the area was created in the ‘90’s. The municipality was not supportive of our initial plan as it went against theirs. Ours embraced walkability- in many cases proper sidewalks were not even existent currently, public spaces, site amenities etc. The true irony was that the community was named Forest Lawn but no trees or landscaping were present due to the City’s plan to widen the road. Our group in turn, decided to “put the forest in Forest Lawn” with a tree planting project of 300 trees along the street. We had to sign a 30 day removal clause in case the road widening took place but we decided to risk this as the financing for such a road project was not in the cards for decades.
You have created the series of events, “Around The World Food Tours”. Why was the goal of this event? What is it and what effect has it had? How has your experience been so far?
Alison Karim-McSwiney: We started developing community and increased the business profitability with events, worked on crime prevention strategies, marketed as a multicultural area where you could “go Around the World in 35 Blocks” just by visiting our street. I remember people telling me they did not wish to go into a business, as they were obviously “gang” members. This was not true of course, but the stigma of the culture was hard to reverse.
“Around the World Food Tour took visitors to our area on a world travel experience without leaving the City.”
I decided to test market an idea in 1997 that would allow people to safely meet the shopkeepers and learn about their products. I called it “Around the World Food Tour” which promised to take visitors to our area on a world travel experience without leaving the City. We treated our new customers as tourists playing up the fun of it. A bus toured around our area and I hired celebrities to educate the group as a tour operator about the culture we were visiting in each store. Our tour took people to Jamaica, Vietnam, Lebanon, Portugal, India and Germany in a four-hour timeframe. We tried prepared food samples at each location and explained how the different products on the business shelves of each location could be used. Meeting the shopkeeper who was ever so pleased to welcome them really worked magic. Not surprisingly, people loved it. Passengers were given coupons to spend; recipes to try later, which we hoped, would bring them back. So now some 20 years later the tours take place monthly or 12 times a year and are sold out within 24 hours of being placed on the website. The best possible type of advertising- that being “word of month” advertising means we do not even have to advertise anywhere else than our own website. People spend money, have been frequenting the stores and have given us the reputation of the area for ethnic speciality food items. It was the first event of its kind in Canada, created in 1997 and still going strong. A resounding success! Sold out within 24 hours of posting new dates.
What other goals has International Avenue pursued and how successful have you been?
Alison Karim-McSwiney: Now we still never lost sight of the ultimate goal to upgrade the infrastructure and created an award winning visionary document entitled “Envisioning International Avenue”. We did this by partnering with the University of Calgary Environmental Design Faculty. We convinced them into creating the ultimate classroom real world experience. A multi-disciplinary class consisting of social workers, architects, urban planners, transportation engineers, historians etc. took a full semester of International Avenue thus immersing them in our issues. The resulting document won a Charter Award from the Congress of New Urbanism as the plan proposed Transit Oriented Development (TOD), mixed use and a new way to look at the area. After the award was won, we took to lobbying politicians, creating lots of media buzz and what we are proposing the international community recognized as outstanding planning.
“Our philosophy was that the area was substandard to begin with requiring government funding and that as an affordable community, it was imperative to not gentrify to a level that would remove what made the area unique, that being a landing area for immigrants to realize their dream of setting up a business.”
Then the wheels went into motion. The City put resources into action to review and create a plan similar to ours. In 2011, the SE17 Land Use and Urban Design Plan was approved as the way forward. Unfortunately, no funding was available and we did not want to charge our landowners, through a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) model, to build the necessary infrastructure changes. Our philosophy was that the area was substandard to begin with requiring government funding and that as an affordable community, it was imperative to not gentrify to a level that would remove what made the area unique, that being a landing area for immigrants to realize their dream of setting up a business. So now in 2017, over 176 million dollars of public funding have been allocated to create the ultimate vision. A street with dedicated transit, wide sidewalks, public art, community gathering spaces, mixed use and an outstanding urban design component. The construction will be completed in fall of 2018. The dream finally fulfilled.
You completed the International Certificate in Place Management at the Institute of Place Management in 2011. Do you find that the qualifications from this course have influenced your work? If yes, in what way?
Alison Karim-McSwiney: I think it is always important to keep yourself fresh with new ideas and practices in the industry. I found the course extremely rewarding as it made me think academically again despite being out of university for a couple of decades.
Being open to new ideas and research is a must in our industry, which IPM does an outstanding job in that regard. However, my particular experience is exceptionally unique. As the first executive director hired to set up the organization and then being able to continue the process through to a successful end over a twenty plus year timeline is largely unheard of. That does not mean that my journey ends here, however, as I think we need to be flexible to the needs of the member businesses in achieving the strategic goals set out by them and be fluid enough to seize opportunities to help in achieving your organizations ultimate goals. What I can bring to the table is a well-rounded knowledge of revitalization work from getting established to rolling with the forks in the road along the way.
The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides.