Adrian Bell, right, speaks with residents in 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Yellowknife’s chamber of commerce says it will embark on a series of events to raise support for businesses alarmed by their post-evacuation fortunes.
One entrepreneur said dozens of business owners met at the downtown Javaroma coffee shop on Wednesday evening to discuss how they can secure their futures.
People are spending less after the three-week evacuation’s strain on their wallets, those businesses say, and government supports – two $5,000 grants are available – are too little.
The same problems extend to other evacuated communities. Hay River’s mayor has repeatedly pleaded with residents to support local businesses and promised to battle for federal assistance.
“It was extremely sad and distressing to see this group – the heart and soul, the pulse of our community – up against such trials and tribulations on financial support,” said Pat Dartnell, of North Country Stables, who attended Wednesday’s meeting.
“When evacuated, they needed to keep paying the rent, bills. They came back to a situation where many of their employees have chosen not to return. Without these businesses continuing to operate, what would happen to our fair city?” Dartnell wrote in a letter to Cabin Radio.
“In the grand scheme of things, what was the sense of fighting the fires when the individuals making our community, the private sector who take all the risks, could be struggling for months or years just to regain financial stability from the closure?”
Several businesses have described the evacuation hitting while they were still working to fully recover from three years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the territorial government has responded – an open house to help people apply for support will take place on Monday, at the same coffee shop where businesses met last week to discuss their survival – the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce says it’s not enough.
The chamber wants the territory’s current $5,000 cap per grant to increase to the $12,500 limit seen during the pandemic, and for “low-to-no-interest loans” to be given out.
“Consumer spending is nowhere near pre-evacuation levels,” chamber president Adrian Bell, a realtor and former city councillor, was quoted as saying in a Friday press release.
“Restaurants, retail, health and wellness, and many other sectors are wondering where their customers are.
“People are very worried. We need to pull together as a community, shake off the effects of the evacuation, and support our small businesses.”
Shaking off those effects is not straightforward for some families, who themselves may have had access to no more than $750 in cash – if that – from the territory during their evacuation. Not everyone ended up in circumstances where their accommodation and food were covered, even if those supports were quite widely available.
“We all endured hardship through this, both financially and emotionally,” Dartnell acknowledged.
In its press release, the chamber of commerce noted the “uncertainty, stress and added financial burden” the evacuation had placed on individuals.
But the press release continued: “While the evacuation is over for most Yellowknife residents, small business owners are still feeling the effects.”
The chamber says it has set up a task force to roll out various strategies aimed at keeping business alive through the coming months. One is “reminding Yellowknife residents of their critical role in reviving our economy,” Friday’s press release stated.
Other initiatives coming up include:
changing next month’s business awards gala into a business recovery fundraiser;
running a series of shop-local events through the fall; and
lobbying the federal government for more help, including funding so business can “continue to operate during climate change-related natural disaster events.”
In the longer term, the chamber said it would work with the City of Yellowknife to ensure that in future, which business are termed essential is a “transparent and fair” process. There was significant confusion and concern about that system at the start of September, through which the city said it alone would decide which private companies were essential and whose workers could come home early.
Veterinarians and dentists were among those left unclear as to why their businesses didn’t make the list.
The chamber also said it “work with the GNWT and the insurance industry to identify where gaps exist in our current insurance landscape.”
“It will take an entire community effort to revive our small business economy,” Bell concluded.