Business leaders and commerce stakeholders are calling Tuesday’s government announcement about the Manitoba Bridge Grant "incomplete" and a "mere tweak" to supports for struggling firms.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding said $5,000-a-pop will now be doled out towards new applicants of the emergency support program that weren’t previously eligible. This would help seasonal businesses impacted by COVID-19 restrictions in particular, Fielding told reporters at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
But not only will those new applicants be unable to receive retroactive payments for earlier rounds of the Bridge Grant, other cash-strapped businesses that had qualified previously are not being offered any new financial support.
"Certainly, we’d hoped for a lot more," Chuck Davidson, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, told the Free Press. "It’s definitely just a tweak to allow anyone that might not have been getting help to get some help now from the province.
"Does this do anything for the many gyms and service industry companies that I talk to on a regular basis? I don’t think so, it’s nothing for them — and they’ve been at this, trudging along for 16 months or so now."
Fielding believes roughly 1,000 Manitoba businesses will be helped through this announcement, which is keeping aside about $5 million in total for funding. It includes storefronts and home-based companies that hadn’t applied earlier, and will be based on 10 per cent of their most recent calendar-year revenues.
"We’ve been offering very generous supports so far, but we didn’t want seasonal businesses or a new business to miss out," said Fielding. "So, things like a chip stand or a gift shop in a resort town, that are impacted and still struggling, will now get this support."
Fielding would not answer why further aid isn’t being offered to other businesses, only hinting at "some measures soon to come." He said financial support might start to wind down and "look different" as public-health restrictions are lifted.
"You know, businesses would rather be allowed to open as quickly and safely as possible, so our focus is on that," said Fielding. "These bridge-type of programs are good when you do have a lockdown-type situation, but... I think it’s really important to have some kind of incentives in place for businesses to rehire and do it in a safe way when that’s possible."
Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Loren Remillard wasn’t exactly pleased. "It’s like commenting on a budget that only produces the odd pages," he said Tuesday.
"I know this is welcome for businesses that slipped through the cracks before, so I’m happy that’s being addressed. But if the finance minister is alluding to other supports that could be coming, I think it’s best to reserve judgments until it’s all announced. Of course, it would’ve been nice to see it all come at the same time."
So far, the Bridge Grant has handed out just over $291 million to nearly 15,000 private enterprises, not-for-profit organizations and registered charities. That’s a combination of four rounds of grants, which qualified some businesses to get up to $20,000 in total since November of 2020.
Some hotels, bars and lounges which offer prepared food services might also automatically get a $2,000 top-up, apart from the $5,000 being offered. It was originally only meant for restaurants, said Fielding, "and now we’re trying to widen the reach of that."
Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said he’s happy the province finally announced what business advocates like him have been asking for weeks.
"Will this be enough for owners to pay their bills, though? For some, it could be a make-or-break amount to keep them going. For others, obviously not enough at all," he said. "We’re all just hoping now for some good news with reopenings."
A provincial portal has been set up online for the Bridge Grant. Applications must be made by July 16.
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.