That the pandemic was particularly tough on small businesses has been well documented over the past couple of years. Among the many aid programs offered by governments was the provincially funded Digital Main Street.
That organization just released a progress report showing their work helping businesses cope with the pandemic.
The report says the organization helped some 27,000 businesses, and gave out $24 million in grants to small businesses to help them transform digitally and nearly $18 million to organizations such as municipalities, business improvement areas (BIAs), or small enterprise centres to hire digital service squads. The digital service squad grants created almost 600 jobs and provided digital training for more than 45,000 businesses.
Just before the pandemic hit, the Digital Main Street Program was actually winding down, says Kay Matthews, the executive director of the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association. In March 2020, they had given out the last of their grants, and finished their training which had been funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Then when the pandemic hit, “We saw this as a key thing to help businesses pivot at a time when they needed to pivot more than any other time,” she said.
Matthews notes she was able to secure nine months’ of funding from the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade and the FedDev program.
Then the Auditor General of Ontario determined the program was a COVID response and recommended that the project be renewed for two more years with more funding, which the province committed to.
The new report notes that small businesses that took advantage of Digital Main Streets’ granting program said it was a key factor in keeping their businesses afloat during lockdowns.
“Digital Main Street was poised to support even more small businesses in an invaluable way during the pandemic and was able to work with government partners to expand Digital Main Street services across the country,” said John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas in a release.
Matthews says the pandemic brought a number of issues to the fore.
“What we did get was more understanding from the general public of how important having a local connection on the main streets in the towns, and the challenges on the main streets. There’s been a lot more understanding that’s come through the pandemic,” she said.
The Digital Main Street organization works to help businesses in three main ways. First, with a questionnaire to help pinpoint what the business owner needs help with. Then Digital Main Street helps the business owner with a digital service squad, which are people who help the business owner directly to help them with navigating their digital needs and business plan. Second, Digital Main Street helps business owners by providing digital training through videos, workshops and webinars. “If we teach somebody how to use tech, then they’re going to be a lot more resilient,” Matthews said.
Third, the organization helps businesses through grants. Business owners can apply to grants, and use the help of the digital service squads to do so if needed. They can apply for a $2,500 grant, awarded based on the weaknesses discovered in their assessment.
“We may be coming out of a pandemic, but our small businesses are not even close to being out of the woods,” said Matthews. “They’re dealing with staff shortages, they’re dealing with increased pricing, harder to get inventory.
“We really have been up against the Amazons of the world,” she said.
“Our organization has asked the government to consider waiving the repayment of CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account). We think to keep on kicking the can down the road – now you don’t have to repay until 2023 – but if the economy doesn’t get much better, if business doesn’t get much better, then there may be quite a substantial amount of bankruptcies of small business because nothing has recovered at this point,” said Matthews.
Organization staff estimate the recent provincial commitment will help 32,000 more small businesses with their digital needs.