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It's bad enough being in business during a pandemic. It's even worse when the business is located on the empty streets of downtown.
Without crowd attractions such as the Winnipeg Jets and concerts, with downtown post-secondary campuses empty while students work remotely, and with nightclubs and restaurants offering only partial service, a profitable stream of customers is only a memory for many downtown business owners.
Downtown Winnipeg BIZ offered a bit of good news on Thursday, launching a small-business support program that offers grants of $1,000 cheques, no strings attached.
Bruce Smedts, the owner of the White Star Diner, has had five-and-a-half months of struggle, starting with the layoff of his staff in March, and including a break-in that led to $3,200 in damaged windows and doors.
"I pay myself a cheque every five weeks if I can manage that," he said, though he was quick to mention how fortunate he was to have a physician as a partner.
When he heard about the BIZ grant, he was at first skeptical that it came from the province, and that it would have a series of strings attached or restrictive thresholds his business didn’t reach based on size and revenue.
"As it turns out, it wasn’t, and there aren’t any strings, aside from being in the downtown business district and experiencing a certain drop in revenue," he said. He quickly filled his application out, too.
“You only have to look at my bank balance to see what $1,000 would do.” — Bruce Smedts, owner of White Star Diner
The diner has been open since March, and relies on a steady stream of regulars who’ve taken to buying more than usual to give the diner a boost, but Smedts said it and other downtown businesses have been hit in ways suburban businesses haven’t: the population he caters to is in large part concentrated in offices, and many have yet to return to work.
Though it’s a relatively small life-line in the grand scheme of things, Smedts said an extra $1,000 could finally enable him to fix his windows and doors, or actually cut himself a paycheque.
"You only have to look at my bank balance to see what $1,000 would do," he said.
Although reopening has been underway for more than four months, business owners are trying to strike a balance between safety and profitability — attempting to make up for a half-year of dwindling cash flow with more uncertainty ahead.
It’s with that in mind that the BIZ launched the program that will see 50 small (fewer than 50 employees) downtown businesses with a minimum 25 per cent revenue decrease since COVID-19 each receive $1,000 in one-time funding. Of the $50,000 available, $10,000 is earmarked for Black-, Indigenous- or people of colour-owned businesses.
The BIZ is calling them micro-grants, but with effects of the shutdown of non-essential businesses and other challenges still lingering, they can have macro impacts in the short term for establishments trying to stay afloat.
"The hope is that this small injection of cash can help businesses adapt -- whether it helps them pay for PPE for staff, helps pay the rent, or it goes towards making some adaptations to their websites to better serve customers," said BIZ CEO Kate Fenske in a release.
For Rachella Scarpino, owner and sole employee of dental fabrication lab Keltech Dental, the cash could go a long way.
“The hope is that this small injection of cash can help businesses adapt — whether it helps them pay for PPE for staff, helps pay the rent, or it goes towards making some adaptations to their websites to better serve customers.” — BIZ CEO Kate Fenske
Keltech was hit hard by the shutdown of the dental industry, with revenues down by more than half, and Scarpino’s applications for programs including the federal $40,000 business loan and the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program were denied.
She heard of the BIZ program on the radio, and then two more times Thursday morning, shortly after the grants were announced. She got her application in as soon as she could.
Assuming her application for the micro-grant is approved, Scarpino said she’ll put the thousand smackers to use by covering her next month’s $750 rent, with the remainder going to the following month.
"For me, that’s a big help," she said, especially with the fall business picture still far from clear as case counts increase.
The applications will be reviewed by Aug. 17, and the grants will be given on a first-come, first-serve basis, the BIZ said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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