Airdrie City council was presented with an update on the City’s efforts to provide local businesses support and relief during the COVID-19 pandemic through its programming during the final council meeting of 2021, held on Dec. 20.
Representatives from the City’s economic development team presented the update, which was the seventh of its kind since the start of the pandemic. The presentation focused on the completion of the Right for Your Business Voucher Program, and new business support programs planned for 2022.
Sara Chamberlain, the team lead of Airdrie Economic Development, provided council with an overview of how the business community fared in 2021. She remarked that like 2020, the City saw company closures across a variety of industries.
“When I looked through the list, there was no real trend,” Chamberlain said. “Though, I did notice several family day homes closed, as well as a handful of hair salons and esthetic businesses, both home-based and commercial.
“There were also a few restaurants that closed their doors over the last 12 months.”
Community members mourned the loss of several local jaunts during 2021, including Smitty’s restaurant and the Roxy Theatre.
Chamberlain said the City did attempt to follow-up with every closed business but received very few responses to staff’s outreach efforts.
She said while the numbers of closures in 2021 were on par with previous years, she is encouraged by the number of new businesses that opened.
“[The] City of Airdrie has issued 501 licenses as of Dec. 1. That’s a very strong year considering we were dealing with COVID-19,” she said, adding the number of home-based businesses has also increased “substantially” during the pandemic.
According to Chamberlain, many residents have faced changing employment during the pandemic. Many have turned to self-employment, either out of necessity, the desire to reinvent themselves, or as a new side-hustle to support their families.
“I think all of these are true in Airdrie and we’ll be watching this trend closely,” she said.
Chamberlain added 2021 was an impressive year for business growth in Airdrie’s commercial sector.
“We have had 82 brave entrepreneurs choose to open during the pandemic,” she said. “We’ve seen openings across all industries from retail stores to veterinarians to restaurants to industrial businesses.”
As a boon to help stimulate the local economy, the City reduced permit fees by 50 per cent, reduced late fees, locked in 2022 license renewal fees at the previous year’s rate, and spearheaded a temporary patio permit program.
Tara Levick and Rebecca Nielsen, economic development officers, provided City council with information regarding the success of the Right for Your Business Voucher Program – a program offering financial aid to pay for critical advisors and financial professionals to help businesses stay resilient through ongoing economic restrictions.
Of 86 total participants in 2021, Levick said 58 per cent of participants were storefront businesses and 42 per cent were home-based.
“The program truly appealed to small businesses of all sizes,” she said. “Over 70 per cent of the participants had less than five employees or were the only employee, though, we did have three businesses in the program with 26 to 50 employees.”
She added 15 of the participants were established businesses in Airdrie, having been in operation for over 10 years.
“This program was built to be flexible, and we feel the ranges in employment size and years in business prove that,” she said, adding the total program spend was upwards of $116,000.
“One of the really neat parts of the program was hearing from the businesses about what was important to them and what they truly needed,” she said. “This program gave us an opportunity to hear directly from the source.”
Nielsen said it is important for Airdrie Economic Development to understand if the program had a positive impact, and so staff conducted a survey. She said 70 per cent of participants responded that they were 100 per cent satisfied with the program.
She added the City also plans to employ a one-year touchpoint survey in 2022 to “better understand the long-term impacts of the program.”
“Overall, economic development believes that this program was successful in achieving our desired outcomes to demonstrate the City of Airdrie’s support of local businesses and to provide meaningful assistance to businesses struggling during the pandemic,” she said.
According to Nielsen, through the program, nearly $100,000 was injected back into Airdrie’s economy, important relationships were made and fostered, and local economic data was gathered.
Chamberlain said a business satisfaction survey is to be conducted and administered early this year, including a COVID-19 section to help the City better understand the true impact of the pandemic on Airdrie’s business community.
She added results from the survey will be shared with council and will be used to determine future actions for the City of Airdrie.
Finally, Chamberlain noted two additional initiatives in the works, including a mentorship program called AdvanceSMART to be initiated in the third quarter of 2022, and a regional partnership with Community Futures Centre West that will provide additional hands-on support to Airdrie businesses this year.
“Community Futures has received $176,000 in funding to deliver Digital Main St.’s Digital Support Squad (DSS) program in our region,” she said. “The [DSS] provides free training and technical assistance to help eligible small businesses increase their digital presence.”
The program will provide funding for one full-time and two part-time DSS members who will be hired to work with business owners on their digital needs, according to Chamberlain. The program will launch early this year and will run until March 2023, including spots for approximately 130 Airdrie businesses.
“The DSS program is going to support the work of the Airdrie Chamber Market,” she said. “The intent of DSS is for businesses to work with a professional on whatever their business need is.”
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