Charles Gauthier's soft diplomacy gets solid results

Enterprise advocate has spent 25 years as CEO of Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association

Charles Gauthier vowed to live life to the fullest after his first wife died at the age of 38 | Rob Kruyt

Ask Charles Gauthier if he would ever run for elected office and you’ll get a diplomatic answer about how, although he respects politicians, he believes his talents are better spent using collaborative approaches to improve livability in Vancouver.

A wide range of people have good things to say about Gauthier, who has been CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) for 25 years as of April 13.

Some have been members of his non-profit organization, which promotes the downtown area as a place to locate a business and advocates streetscape improvements.

He also has fans among city planners, elected officials and the heads of non-profit associations.

None of them is likely to sway Gauthier to leave his role any time soon.

“I’m better at working behind the scenes,” Gauthier told Business in Vancouver from the boardroom of his organization’s 2,000-square-foot office on West Pender Street. “I’m always trying to find compromises and a win-win solution. I don’t necessarily see that in the world of politics. It’s very partisan and I’m not sure I would do well in that environment.”

Gauthier’s approach is so subtle that it has occasionally invited criticism that he can be too collaborative and not abrasive enough.

“There are issues that sometimes I think we really need someone to yell and scream at us,” said George Affleck, one of the opposition Non-Partisan Association councillors on Vancouver city council. “I’d like to see business improvement associations become more aggressive.”

City manager Sadhu Johnston, however, told Business in Vancouver that Gauthier’s influence is felt at city hall – partly through weekly emails that outline problems such as food trucks parked in the wrong location or garbage piled up on the street.

Johnston also keeps up a running dialogue with Gauthier about how to keep Vancouver’s downtown vibrant and what is happening in the downtowns of other cities around the world.

Gauthier’s days, which he spends working as an exuberant promoter of the 90 blocks in the downtown core that the DVBIA represents, usually start with a morning workout at the Terminal City Club.

In the evening, he typically does something either intellectually or creatively stimulating, he said.

Some nights that means reading a book about travel by Bill Bryson, Rick Antonson or another of his other favourite travel writers.

Other nights he practises acoustic guitar on one of the instruments in his collection – he calls his 1968 Martin D-28 guitar his “pride and joy” – or plays Scrabble online with Facebook friends.

Gauthier’s interests and experiences are wide-ranging – reflecting a desire to embrace life that was prompted in part by tragedy.

His first wife, Joanne, died of a stroke in 1999, when she was 38 years old. He was the same age.

“I mourned her loss, and then I said I would live life to the fullest because she had not,” Gauthier said. “She had been sick for a while.”

He made his first trip abroad at the end of that year, when excitement about the dawn of a new millennium was widespread. He ushered in the 2000s while watching fireworks and a light show at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

He has now been married for almost 15 years to Donna, and the two enjoy travelling and new adventures.

Gauthier, who turns 56 years old in August, tried skydiving once, and bungee jumping is on his bucket list – as is walking on the Great Wall of China.

Originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, he traces his ancestry back to immigrants who moved from Paris to Quebec City circa 1666 – long before the pivotal 1759 battle between the British and French broke out on the nearby Plains of Abraham.

He completed a political science degree and a masters degree in urban planning at the University of Manitoba before moving to a sequence of small Manitoba towns to perform economic development work.

Instead of being at Vancouver’s Expo 86, he was thousands of kilometres east, trying to help small communities achieve their economic potential.

Part of the work entailed scrambling to win government grants and persuade municipal governments to fund valuable initiatives.

The Summerland Economic Development Commission hired Gauthier in 1990 to stimulate development in that Okanagan community and, on the side, also run its business improvement association (BIA).

Few BIAs existed at the time. One of the first in B.C. was in Summerland.

“The economic development work was interesting but the BIA work was a lot more fun,” Gauthier said.

In 1992, his contract ended and a new job opened up at the helm of the two-year-old DVBIA.

Always looking forward, Gauthier is now focused on reorganizing staff and implementing a new five-year plan. Meanwhile, the DVBIA’s vice-president has chosen to soon leave and, instead of filling that position, Gauthier plans to hire three people: a marketing expert, a data analyst and an economic development officer who will help persuade businesses to lease space on high-vacancy streets such as the downtown Granville strip.

That will bring the number of DVBIA staff to nine, including Gauthier. The DVBIA also subcontracts 16 downtown ambassadors to liaise with members, note locations where graffiti needs to be removed and provide directions and advice to tourists.

Gauthier has steered DVBIA away from hosting its own events, as it did in the past, such organizing an international buskers festival in the 1990s, and instead has moved it toward a sponsorship role in which it provides grants to festivals, such as the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival or the Doxa Documentary Film Festival.

The organization’s budget will increase to $3.27 million in the fiscal year that starts April 1. That’s up from about $500,000 when Gauthier joined the organization.

About 87%, or $2.85 million, of DVBIA revenue derives from a levy on commercial property within the association’s area. Provincial law mandates the city to collect the levy as part of businesses’ property tax bills.

Commercial building owners and tenants could group together to stop the fee but instead have seen value in everyone being required to pay it.

Gauthier estimated that businesses annually pay about $0.16 for each $1,000 in assessed value – a “tiny” fraction of what businesses spend on other things.

The remaining 13% of DVBIA’s revenue comes from voluntary contributions from business owners who want specific improvements near their property.

A number of businesses along the Alberni Street strip, between Burrard and Bute streets, for example, have volunteered extra funds and been rewarded with new banners. They also have the DVBIA lobbying the city to make improvements to the Alberni streetscape.

“The city is going to start to allocate staff resources to start to plan for the public realm improvements on Alberni Street,” Gauthier said. “Patience is required when you’re working on a team approach. We’re one step closer.”

Former Pacific Centre general manager Ultan Kampff called Gauthier an effective consensus builder and praised his energy and dedication.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as enthusiastic about his role as Charles is about his,” Kampff said.

Similarly, urban planning consultant and Brook Pooni principal Gary Pooni noted Gauthier’s “boyish enthusiasm” and added that it comes with a strong value system.

“To have longevity in an organization like he has had for 25 years, he would have had to have built long relationships of trust,” Pooni said. “He is a very good man.” •