Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Loren Remillard said he knows people are suffering from "Zoom exhaustion" but even still, a fairly upbeat group of more than 100 members of the chamber went online to participate in the fifth annual Mayor’s Small Business Summit on Thursday.
The idea is to get small business community together with city officials to discuss the future of the city and how the city and the small business community can work better together.
Mayor Brian Bowman — a former chairman of the chamber himself — spoke about the ways the city has had to change the way it operates.
But when it comes to direct support for businesses which have had to temporarily close to adhere to public health guidelines, he was frank as to the city’s limited ability to provide financial support.
Other than the temporary patio program for restaurants, developing curbside pickup zones for retailers, and waiving penalties for delayed tax payments, the city does not have much more at its disposal.
Bowman took the opportunity to point out how the city is obliged to operate in a regressive, antiquated municipal property tax system.
"The current form of taxation is dumb. We need the province to make a decision to provide a more business-friendly and a more progressive form of revenue collection for municipalities including the city of Winnipeg" he said. "That’s what we need to happen and I will continue to press for that."
The current property tax system does not really allow the city to invest in economic development, because all of those benefits would flow to the provincial and federal governments through PST and GST.
"People expect us to talk about jobs but right now we don’t have the same skin in the game for economic development that the feds and the province have," he said.
In addition to the pandemic, Bowman spoke about the new OurWinnipeg plan, the city’s draft transit master plan, and innovations within the permits and inspections department.
Some summit participants like Justin Zarnowski of Shindico Inc. noted how that outdated form of revenue generation is made even more evident these days as businesses are paying property tax on buildings that are not being used to their full extent — because they have either been forced to close or staff are working from home — and buildings are likely worth less than they were pre-COVID.
Zarnowski also suggested that the city should let people defer their property tax next year, as is the case for this year.
"I recognize the city is in a tough spot from a revenue perspective, but people are being taxed as if their properties are worth what they were before COVID," Zarnowski said in a breakout session with senior city administration. "I’m not arguing for re-assessment but maybe there could be some tax relief for businesses that have actually, meaningfully suffered."
Joe Kornelsen, the executive director of the West End Business Improvement Zone, said the city could help small businesses by making the permitting process more transparent by providing a timeline as to how long people should expect to wait for various permits to come through.
"We know the city is aware of the challenges and it is heartening to hear they are working on it," he said. "Having the financial resources to start a business is one thing, but uncertainties around permit timeline is another type of cost."
Olukayode Solomon, who runs an import and export business called AlleArten Canada, said the support he’s most urgently in need of is likely something that the city or any other body is really able to provide these days — the chance to network.
Remillard knows exactly what Solomon was talking about.
"Right now that need in the business community is off the charts," Remillard said. "It is the one constant thing I hear. Folks need to get out and meet people."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.