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Essex Council continues to expand plan for local business support

by Sylene Argent

During the special Council meeting held on Monday, June 29, Essex Council voted in favour of a few different measures to help local businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic.

  Nelson Silveira, Economic Development Officer, said the report he prepared on this matter was to provide Council with an overview of the proposals submitted by the Essex Centre BIA and the Harrow & Colchester South Chamber of Commerce on business support through the pandemic.

  In the report, it notes the Essex Centre BIA requested financial assistance with the purchase of safety supplies for local businesses; financial support for the Summer BIA dollar program; support for businesses looking to expand patios or create outdoor seating on municipal property; and support with relaying information to the BIA regarding new regulations, funding, or best practices as it relates to operating a business during the COVID-19 emergency.

  The report also highlighted that the Harrow & Colchester South Chamber of Commerce requested financial support for the proposed Harrow Night Market on King Street and McAffee Street; Town assistance in closing streets and putting up barricades for the purpose of supporting store fronts to move out onto the sidewalk, with $4,000 in financial contribution from Town of Essex. It also requested financial support for the proposed Social Circle, a community gathering place designed to allow residents to enjoy a variety of foods provided via a food tuck, at picnic tables under a canopy of covered trees and tents. For this, it would need Town assistance in providing picnic tables and a $4,000 financial contribution.

  Silveira said administration reviewed the aforementioned proposals from both organizations. There were two requests for funding for events from the Harrow & Colchester South Chamber of Commerce, Silveira said. With the events the Chamber submitted, he said there could be problems with following provincial guidelines as it relates to the pandemic. The specifics of those events included not just closing streets, but involved live music and food trucks, and that didn’t align with provincial guidelines regarding social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  These events will likely be available for funding in the future, perhaps in Phase 3 of the provincial reopening program, he said.

  In regards to the Essex Centre BIA’s request that Town provide up-to-date information on measures on business operations as it relates to the pandemic, Silveira said the Town regularly sends out information. The Town has heard this request, and has since developed a webpage with resources for businesses, and increased communication.

  Councillor Kim Verbeek was grateful he contacted the BIA and the Chamber, but many businesses have told her the Town has not contacted them directly.

  Silveira said it is difficult to contact every single business. The Town relies on the BIA and Chamber, and social media, to push out messaging.  

  Councillor Sherry Bondy added she hoped the position of the Economic Development Officer would be that boots-on-the-ground person. She said she had help form a summer student, who identified there were 150 businesses in the Harrow and Colchester area. They haven’t had anyone else from the Town call, besides her.

  Right now, there is a lot going on, she said. Some businesses are doing well, others are not running at capacity. “Have we reached out to them?”

  She added the Chamber does not represent all businesses as it is voluntary to join. She said it is a good start, but there is still a lot of work to do. She urged Council members to pick up the phone and identify which businesses are falling through the cracks.   

 

Council approves $100,000 for Business Relaunch Fund

Council voted to offer the COVID-19 Business Relaunch Fund. This $100,000 program will offer around 200 businesses within the municipality of Essex with a one-time grant of $500.

  It will be offered on a first come, first serve basis. There are criteria to meet in order to submit a successful application.

  The Report to Council notes approved businesses could use these funds to assist with the costs of implementing measures to decrease the risk of virus transmission by installing physical barriers, front counter protective shields, or by implementing permanent workplace modifications needed to comply with Windsor Essex County Health Unit safety requirements.

  The Report to Council noted there are around 335 active businesses assessed under the commercial class within the Municipality of Essex, so this could help around 60 percent of businesses.

  The grant launched on July 6, and applications will be accepted until August 31.

  Councillor Joe Garon asked where the funds for this grant would come from. Jeff Morrison, Director of Corporate Services, said the funds would come out of the bottom line, when the Town reconciles the COVID-19 amount.

  Councillor Kim Verbeek said Council needs to step up and help businesses come back from the COVID-19 blow and thrive. Council members are fooling themselves if they think the Town was going to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic with every business surviving. She loved the $100,000 grant idea.

  Councillor Chris Vander Doelen said he is all for helping businesses, but he does not think the grant will help. He said he has spoken to business owners, and he heard they are looking for reduced government burden.

  “But, by playing Santa Claus and handing money out, that money is paid for by somebody else. It is not our money, that comes from other taxpayers. So, we are going to be increasing government burden on other taxpayers to hand out these little gifts, when I am not so sure it is going to help. We should be reducing costs, not adding to them.”

  Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche believes the $100,000 was a good idea as he thought it was not too rich for the Town to do.

  Mayor Larry Snively said $100,000 equates to a one-percent tax increase. He asked if Council wanted to really put the burden on the taxpayer to fund this program? He said COVID-19 is not going to go away too soon.

  Councillor Steve Bjorkman said commercial businesses put a lot of money into the community, “And, they make us a lot of what we are. We need to support these downtowns,” he said.

 

Additional safety funding for the Essex Tourism Events Fund

Council also approved adding $1000 for successful events applied to the Essex Tourism Events Fund for events that will be required to follow health and safety protocols, once provincial restrictions are lifted.

 

Businesses can apply to use parking spaces to extend sale area

In addition, Council voted to accept using parking spaces in downtown cores as a temporary business space, but not applied, unless there has been a business request. This would be so long as administration has reviewed and is satisfied with the request; and that the request was made with a coordinated effort with the Essex Centre BIA or the Harrow & Colchester South Chamber of Commerce.

  Director of Infrastructure, Kevin Girard, will also look at feasibility and safety in extending business spaces into sidewalk or parking spaces. He had concerns with putting people on the road, whether they are roped or lined off or not. He wanted time to develop a model, so when the Town is approached by a business that wants to expand a patio to the limits of the sidewalk, the Town can provide barriers or potential alternatives, including possible fees.         

  In July, Silveira said, the Province noted it would allow restaurants and bars to extend outdoor patio spaces temporarily. The Town, he added, has taken a proactive approach on this. Even prior to the BIA request, the Town had an online application for business expansion plans and the approval process has been mainstreamed.

  Councillor Joe Garon said he was all for shutting down the streets to aid businesses. He wants to focus efforts on helping all businesses, not just the ones on main streets. He thinks the recommendations in Silveira’s report made for a great start.   The Town needs to help businesses expand into an outdoor space, Councillor Kim Verbeek noted. Retailers need to be helped as some do not have enough space to adhere to social distancing requirements.

  Councillor Steve Bjorkman was never a fan of taking street parking away, but the town does have three good-sized parking lots circling the downtown. He said Council needs to do what it can to help businesses, and it does not cost the Town anything to give businesses the ability to expand stores out onto sidewalks.

  Vander Doelen thought closing streets could hurt a lot of businesses. “We seem to be all over the place here, trying to help people, but with contradictory plans, and with no real handle on the money,” he said, speaking of what he called a big hole in the budget for next year as costs related from COVID add up.

  Garon wondered how many businesses were interested in the model of extending their space onto sidewalks.

  During the regular Council meeting on July 6, Director of Community Services/Deputy CAO, Doug Sweet, said the Town has received a total of ten temporary patio applications to date; nine are restaurants and one is a retail establishment. Six of the applications were from Essex Centre businesses, one from Harrow, two from Colchester, and one was from the McGregor area. Six of the applications are on public property. Nine have already been approved. A site meeting is still needed for the tenth application.

  “We are all in favour of helping the businesses, there is no doubt about it.” Snively said, though he fears there will be some loss of business, but he hopes he is wrong about that.

 

Letter will be sent to ask for municipal relief

Councillor Sherry Bondy asked if there has been discussion on places that host wedding and other functions, and implementing a COVID vacancy rate as they are unable to hold those events as of right now. She wondered if Council had an appetite to lobby the government for municipal relief because municipalities need extra support. Towns, she said, still have to maintain these facilities that are town-owned.

  Council voted to send a letter to MP Taras Natyshak, indicating Essex is seeking municipal relief and financial support due to COVID-19, to support municipal operations.

 

Past business support measures

At the June 15 Council meeting, Council approved $15,000 for Town of Essex Digital Growth Grant in 2020. The Essex Centre BIA committed an additional $5000 to this effort.

  The Town of Essex Digital Growth Grant is intended to provide up to 20 businesses with up to $1,000 for a one-time, non-repayable fund to better focus on digital activities and strategies for a stronger online presence. The Town has also hosted a 12-days of giveaways campaign to promote shopping locally and launched an open for business map.

  Councillor Kim Verbeek hopes the Digital Grant, previously approved by Council, is getting some uptake.

 

Council to consider newspaper ad grant

At the regular Council meeting held virtually on July 6, Councillor Kim Verbeek put forward a Notice of Motion, to be considered by Council at the Monday, July 20 meeting. She will ask Council to support local businesses through a grant, funded through the Council Contingency Fund, to cover up to half the cost of print ads in newspapers during the current declared COVID-19 emergency.  

  She said she has had great feedback on this idea so far.

  During the meeting, Councillor Sherry Bondy said she likes the Digital Grant Fund, but also liked Verbeek’s idea about providing funding to help businesses get an ad in newspapers as well.  

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