Community Services

The Gift of a Pandemic Toolkit to Small Businesses

Like many things in 2020, the holiday season will be far from normal and this will have negative consequences for small businesses, particularly retailers. Here’s how a group of Local Economic Development students hope to help change that by encouraging people to “buy local.”

As parts of the country have implemented stricter social distancing measures and lockdowns during the second wave of COVID-19, many smaller Canadian retailers are questioning how they will survive without being able to benefit from the holiday shopping season – traditionally their busiest time of the year.

Many have already taken a hit from earlier this year and without immediate full assistance, might have to shut their doors permanently.

While for some it might be too little, too late, the “buy local” mantra often repeated by politicians at all levels of government could be their last hope. That’s the theme around “Bring Back Main Street”, a nationally-coordinated research and advocacy campaign put together by the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI). A group of Chang School students enrolled in the Local Economic Development (LED) Certificate contributed to this campaign with their research project, “Buy Local with Confidence”, which includes a report and toolkit that was shared by the CUI as part of this campaign.

The resources developed by the LED students for the campaign provide local business improvement areas (BIAs) with tools based on research to recover from COVID-19 and emerge from the crisis stronger than ever. One of the LED students involved with Bring Back Main Street is Iana Lanceta. Her fellow group members included: Lilian Phillip, Lucia (Ming-Hsuan) Huang, Laura Burnham, Sebastian Contin, Simran Sandhu, and Frank Venditti.

As part of the LED certificate, students must complete a capstone project course in which they are provided a LED project that reflects a specific challenge in a community.

Giving Small Businesses a Helping Hand

Karol Murillo, instructor of CVUP 160 Capstone Project in LED, said the course is like a “mini-consulting bootcamp”, where students have to sell their project to the client in the end. In the case of Bring Back Main Street, the client was the CUI, as mentioned above.

“The Canadian business community continues to adapt during these challenging times,” said Karol, who is a Senior Business Development Consultant for Hamilton Economic Development. “My role is to help them with available government programs and support their business to ensure they can recover and remain viable.”

Providing assistance and advice to businesses is the role that Karol wants her students like Iana and her group members to take on when developing and presenting their projects to clients. Iana said the inspiration behind Bring Back Main Street came from her group thinking about ways they could help small businesses overcome the difficulties and challenges they faced this year due to the pandemic.

“One of our group members was talking about different services and benefits to promote the idea to people of ‘buying local’”, she said, adding that the appropriate health and safety measures would have to also be taken into consideration.

Putting the Tools to Use

Bring Back Main Street consists of two main parts: a report and toolkit. The report looks at the background of how the pandemic has impacted consumer activity and confidence while the toolkit offers something more tangible that municipalities can bring to council to implement “buy local” examples of programming and interventions. These examples are based on broad ideas from international case studies and trends.

Ideas include a community chalk festival, community mapping, community hub, and scavenger hunt. Each idea outlines the cost, length (weeks, months, years), whether it’s winter friendly, and materials. It then delves further and sheds light on why it’s a good idea, who benefits from it, whether people with diverse abilities will be able to participate, how municipalities can collaborate with people in the community who are already doing this type of work, whether businesses would like to support the program, COVID-related considerations, and how to measure success.

The LED students behind this project believe that initiatives like those mentioned above are important to helping small communities and the businesses that operate in them during and after the pandemic.

“One of our instructors, Frank Miele said that up to 90 percent of new and existing jobs exist from local businesses,” she said. “The vitality of these small communities relies heavily on the success of these businesses, before, during, and after the pandemic.”

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