Road to recovery: Edmonton launches $5M grant program to help business

Edmonton businesses struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic can apply for municipal assistance through a new program approved on Wednesday. 

Councillor skeptical that city can be fair in choosing who gets money

Downtown Business Association president Ian O'Donnell says he hopes the city will consider industries hardest hit by COVID-19 when awarding financial assistance. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Edmonton businesses struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic can apply for municipal assistance through a new program approved on Wednesday. 

The city's new economic recovery program includes a 50-per-cent discount on business licensing fees — upon request — until the end of 2020. 

It includes $5.3-million in grant money, with $1,000 to $25,000 available to each successful applicant.

Though city council approved the program, Coun. Mike Nickel said he's skeptical about how fair the process can be. 

"Which group gets it and which group doesn't?" he asked during the council meeting. "Which industry gets support and which industry doesn't?"

Nickel said the goals of the program seem vague.

"How many jobs are we talking about rescuing here? What kind of companies?"

Grants handed out over next 18 months

Stephanie McCabe, deputy manager of urban form and corporate strategy, said an internal team will determine that through an application and evaluation process. 

"It won't be perfect and there will be a level of subjectivity associated with this grant, as all grant programs do."

The city will implement the recovery program in two phases. Forty per cent of the grant money will be allotted in phase one, from June 10 to Dec. 31, 2020, and the rest will be delivered in phase two, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021.

Ian O'Donnell, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, said the recovery program probably shouldn't have rigid rules under the current circumstances. 

"I think this might be better off broad than really getting down into the weeds, because it needs to be flexible," O'Donnell said. "There are just too many scenarios out there." 

O'Donnell said the program may help create jobs, provide economic stability and create opportunities for businesses looking at new ways to generate revenue and attract customers. 

McCabe said her team is still sorting out the details and will report on those during the next council meeting on June 8.

Businesses will have to show that they meet several criteria, she said. Those include job creation and potential for staff to return to work, and some measure of how much COVID-19 has forced a company to change how it functions, such as the need to provide personal protective equipment. 

In evaluating applications, the city will also look at how well a business may contribute to diversifying the economy and how it adopts technology and innovative forms of marketing.

Mayor Don Iveson said he hopes the lingering questions will be sorted out. 

"Council's expectation would be that it's very straightforward for business to apply and very straightforward for administration to implement."

Open for business

O'Donnell said his association and business improvement areas are trying to instill consumer confidence, and the city's program shows promise. 

"Convince people to come back," he said. "We want to make sure that we are open for business and this is really going to help." 

He said the association is helping businesses with PPE and sanitizers. 

Some businesses, such as personal service shops, were forced to close under public health orders. Others, including grocery and liquor stores, stayed open and saw an increase in customers. 

O'Donnell said with a limited amount of grant money, he hopes the city considers the hardest hit businesses, such as the hospitality and entertainment industries. 

"I think it's incumbent on the city to look at those most impacted and unable to operate as usual, and perhaps most encumbered by the regulations." 

Licence fees cut in half

About 21,000 businesses are expected to renew their licences between June 1 and the end of the year, McCabe told council.  

Of the city's 36,000 businesses, she said 300 have already asked for the 50-per-cent discount on their licence fees. 

Iveson said cutting red tape and simplifying things are also key to helping businesses, pointing to a recent streamlined application process for businesses to expand and build patios. 

"We've heard really positive feedback from the business improvement areas about opportunities to streamline patios and look at setting aside a bit more space in the public carriage way for patios and pedestrians," Iveson said. 

Council approved adjustments to the spring operating budget, moving money from one department to another, to free up the money for the grant program.



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