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City supports should have come sooner, some St. Albert businesses say

"When your sales are down by that much, and you've had it over a year ... it's almost too late," local business owner says
Sidewalks are mostly empty downtown St. Albert on Perron Street amid the COVID-19 pandemic. BRITTANY GERVAIS/St. Albert Gazette

Some St. Albert business owners say while a new city grant program is appreciated, it's the kind of support they needed to see sooner. 

On April 6, St. Albert city council unanimously passed a motion to spend $100,000 to establish a business resiliency program. Those funds will come from the $1 million set aside for COVID-19 recovery last year. The recommendation came from a motion passed by the city's COVID-19 Recovery Task Force on March 24.

Final details, like eligibility and program duration, still need to be worked out before it opens up in early May, according to the city. What is known so far is part of the program will involve two matching grants – one providing up to $1,000 for digital projects, with another providing up to $500 for marketing initiatives.

Kim Borle, owner of The Bookstore on Perron, said she thought the timing of the program was late in the pandemic. The downtown store has dealt with sales falling by 60 to 70 per cent over the last year, as more people go to big box stores like Chapters, she said.  

"When your sales are down by that much, and you've had it over a year ... it's almost too late. They should have done this months ago, a year ago," Borle said.  

The store transitioned to online sales and deliveries early in the pandemic, and that's what kept the store afloat, she said. Had the matching grant been available at the time, she said the store could've used it for marketing or online sales to help break through to customers. 

However, Borle added any support for small businesses is welcome, particularly if the grant would allow businesses to get reimbursement for work they had already done.  

"I would definitely apply for the grant. If you're offered some kind of funds, any kind of funds that help, I would never say no."

Jenny Pyshniak, co-owner of Seasons Gift Shop, said she also thought the city's grant roll-out comes late in the pandemic.

The store made a significant investment to buy a brand-new point-of-sale system (the hardware and software that work together to process sales and payment transactions) to build an online store at the beginning of the pandemic. The online store launched last December.

"It is a huge undertaking," Pyshniak said. "I would say we've only got maybe 20 per cent of the items in our store on the online store."

Once the grant opens up, she said they'd look into using funds to expand their search engine optimization so customers could find Seasons easier online.  

Jaden Shermack, manager of Candy Bouquet, said he built the store's entire website so they could sell product online last March, which turned out to be "quite the ordeal." 

"We probably would have taken the help for sure, because it was very uncertain. Now, I mean, we've been through this for a year now. So I don't know if the extra help would do that much for someone like us, but for someone that's being constantly shut down like a restaurant, I think it would help them a bit more."

Better late than never

During the council meeting on April 6, Mayor Cathy Heron recognized St. Albert was "the last out of the gate" when it comes to municipal supports for local businesses. Fort Saskachewan, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Leduc, Grande Prairie and other Alberta municipalities have already established grant programs. 

However, Heron said she believed the city's decision to hold off until they heard what businesses needed was the right call.  

According to a survey done in February, 49 per cent of the 166 St. Albert business owners surveyed said they needed more marketing tools to increase awareness, while 47 per cent said they needed help increasing their online presence.

Jennifer McCurdy, former St. Albert Chamber president, brought forward a motion to the Recovery Task Force in January. She said it took time for the task force to figure out what supports businesses needed that they weren't getting from other levels of government.

"It does take a little while, and that can be frustrating for everybody. But I think it was really important and great that from the survey, we were able to identify some of the key components that will help businesses, who have already pivoted and already made changes, to boost them and support them in what they're already doing."  

Paola Rohuede, owner of St. Albert marketing agency Kre8tive Agency, said she thought the grant would help more small businesses afford online and marketing services. For $2,000, clients could get either a three-page website with hosting included, a social media management package, or some logo and branding in combination with a website.

"I think (the grant) is going to be great for small business owners that have been on the edge of waiting," she said.

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