A "discover downtown" banner next to Yellowknife's Frame Lake in early April 2020. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Northern chambers of commerce are mounting determined but separate campaigns to attract more help for NWT businesses struggling through the pandemic.
The NWT Chamber of Commerce, in a letter signed by chambers from four communities, urged the federal government to expand relief to help more businesses and give residents larger emergency benefits to meet the higher cost of living.
However, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce was not a signatory to that letter and instead has its own, entirely different set of requests for the federal government.
Yellowknife’s chamber wants Ottawa to make it easier for northern businesses to get the federal wage subsidy, and supply a better rent relief package.
The Yellowknife chamber is also targeting the territorial and municipal governments.
On Monday, the chamber asked the City of Yellowknife to take millions of dollars from funds set aside for downtown revitalization and repurpose the cash as a Covid-19 relief fund for businesses.
Tim Syer, the chamber’s president, acknowledged that was a “big ask” but was necessary.
Deneen Everett, the chamber’s executive director, told councillors: “Businesses are concerned they won’t have funds to start up against after the pandemic. Business who have been forced to lay off staff have doubts about their ability to recall staff before they must pay out severance packages they can’t afford.
“If travel restrictions are not lifted until a vaccine is found, we’re looking at 12 to 18 months without revenue.”
Save money for downtown or spend on Covid-19?
City councillors appeared not immediately convinced that taking longer-term funding from Yellowknife’s downtown and using it to combat Covid-19’s economic impacts was wise.
“How do we pay for this?” asked Councillor Niels Konge, repeating a refrain he has used several times in recent weeks as the City fields requests for financial support, the waiving of fees and charges, or tax breaks.
“All these things that the municipality is being asked to do at no cost… there is a cost and, eventually, somebody pays,” Konge said.
The money being targeted by the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce is a slice of just over $3 million currently held in two pots: the downtown development reserve and revitalization initiative reserve.
That money is designed to fund a future transformation of the city’s downtown, long an unsolvable problem.
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said her team had intended pulling together all of the many past studies and reports on the downtown to produce “a really robust plan.” The money would be used to back up that plan and get things moving.
However, Bassi-Kellett added: “Life changes. We get that.”
Syer said the money in the downtown reserve is perfect for a Covid-19 relief fund because it is money the City had already stashed away. Changing its purpose would not, he said, have any impact on taxes or other line items in the budget.
“That money has been sitting there for quite some time,” Syer said.
“We recognize the financial constraints. Nobody is looking for a free lunch. We are suggesting we are repurposing those funds: now is the time, that money is sitting there.”
Kerry Penney, the City’s director of economic development, said council would have to find “a balance” between short-term Covid-19 help and Yellowknife’s longer-term downtown issues.
Penney said: “We have to look at these funds to see what impact we can make … at the risk of not proceeding with some of the [economic objectives] that might, in the longer term, have more of a benefit downtown.”
Some businesses worry for May and June
The NWT Chamber of Commerce, headed up by president Jenni Bruce, is looking at a different problem the territory’s businesses may face.
Bruce believes many NWT companies are, for the time being, doing OK – or at least, not badly enough to qualify for the federal wage subsidy. (The application process for the subsidy opened on Monday.)
She is worried about what happens when, playing by the rules and burning up their own capital for now, those companies go on to register a loss later in the year and need Ottawa’s help.
“The North runs a little unique. We’re hearing quite a few businesses up here aren’t showing a drop in revenue for April and May but they’re definitely going to start feeling it in late May and June, and the funds the federal government has available may dry up by that point,” said Bruce.
“We would prefer to see that they maybe put out a budget rather than first-come, first-serve, or allow some flexibility in the application process.”
Chambers of commerce in Hay River, Fort Smith, Norman Wells, and Fort Simpson were signatories to the NWT Chamber of Commerce’s letter lobbying the federal government for help.
Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said her chamber’s absence from the signatories was “just a timing thing.” (She told Cabin Radio her chamber had similarly not heard back from the NWT chamber about support for its own lobbying efforts. “I know everyone is busy working on their own initiatives,” she said.)
The NWT chamber’s letter came out after various territorial chambers had been given the opportunity to take part in a phone call with the office of the federal minister of economic development, Melanie Joly.
Bruce suggested the short call hadn’t provided the time necessary for a full discussion of the North’s needs.
“They pretty-much just explained what their programs are and opened it up to questions,” said Bruce, acknowledging she understood the minister had national responsibility and many pressing concerns.
“The call was only scheduled for half an hour so we didn’t get to voice anything, but we did hear similar concerns from other groups across the NWT.”
‘Opening up Main Street’
As the Yellowknife chamber discusses using the downtown fund to help businesses, the NWT chamber says getting the downtown going again is precisely the issue.
“We definitely want to start focusing on how to get ‘Main Street’ open again,” said Bruce, expressing hope the territorial government would ease some restrictions. Many types of business, like salons, have been ordered to close as social distancing cannot be maintained.
“Personally, I’m seeing it as maybe putting a bit of a focus on our non-essential businesses that had to close. If they can come up with a great social isolation plan, is there a way we can maybe start looking at them opening?” suggested Bruce.
“A great example would be a hair salon, because I know a lot of people need haircuts,” she added, laughing.
Meanwhile, at City Hall, Konge said councillors need to have “an in-depth discussion” before agreeing to turn over the downtown piggy bank for short-term Covid-19 relief.
In the meantime, Bassi-Kellett said the City was working to put out tenders for as much work as possible that local contractors would be likely to bid on and win, as a form of stimulus measure.
The territory’s industry minister, Katrina Nokleby, on Saturday issued a statement in which she offered support to NWT small businesses and said “federal support must be considered through a distinctly northern lens.”
Nokleby said she “supported the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce in its lobby efforts with the federal government to ensure relief programs, developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, reflect the unique realities of operating in the North.”
The minister did not mention the NWT chamber’s separate campaign.
“These are challenging times but I am confident that, by working together, we can move past this crisis,” Nokleby wrote.