10 ways Vancouver city hall can help small business survive the pandemic

The city has frittered valuable time haplessly in the pandemic.

Rather than focus on saving the underpinning of the community – the small businesses that line our walkable streets – it has spent too much energy on matters outside its grasp, most recently the global climate challenge. History will show it stumbled.

Most big businesses will survive. But in the significant time we remain in this pandemic, what might be done by the city to sustain the smaller among them?

Here are 10 ideas:

1) Enable expert assistance. Too many small businesses lack the wherewithal to navigate the maze of support programs and the evolving tax system. The city could assemble a resource base of its managers and employees as a service to businesses so they can maximize the system with the greatest acumen as they tire of the struggle. If this assistance isn’t at city hall (insert smarmy comment here), hire professionals with small-business aptitude to help operators deal with cash flow issues and financing. Other cities have.

2) Introduce a temporary hiring subsidy targeting hard-hit businesses to generate jobs in 2021. If you add to your ranks someone who has been unemployed for, say, 90 days (San Francisco chooses 30), pay the salary to a certain threshold (it can be a low threshold), and let the employer pay the balance and the benefits until we are escaping the pandemic’s worst effects. Compel an employer financially to retain that job so the funds aren’t abused.

3) Incentivize local spending. It was a missed opportunity when the province promised people $500. Jeff Bezos doesn’t need to be richer. John Horgan should have given people money only if they spent it locally. But it’s not too late for the city to create a system to provide fractional rebates to people who spend within walking-distance local merchants. Technology exists to detect who that is. Other cities are doing this.

4) Subsidize restaurant delivery. These are the businesses most likely to vaporize. They can’t serve at capacity for the next while. Food delivery is taking a bite out of their take-out revenue. Don’t just complain as a government about delivery costs – few, apart from those in on last week’s Doordash IPO, are getting rich in this hardscrabble business. Instead, rebate restaurants fractionally when their delivery firms operate within an acceptable fee structure to keep the most money in the eatery. Other cities are.

5) Winterize patios. Rather than proceed with large projects, direct some of the extensive resources of the city’s workforce to proceed with small covering, sheltering and assistance to heat the hundreds of patios that will otherwise be idled for the next five months. Quickly build a culture of outdoor restaurants this winter.

6) No-interest loans for certain troubled businesses. It’s difficult to loan more affordably than financial institutions, but a city can – and others do. Dip into the rainy-day fund, provide loans of up to $50,000 for harder-hit businesses with good credit history and revenue of less than $2 million for two years, as long as they are in leased quarters for at least another two. Keeps the neighbourhood intact, gives the business time to regroup.

7) Develop more curbside pickup zones. Create spaces on blocks for 10-minute business parking. The people using these services are digitally savvy, so use parking apps to permit them to park and have their fees waived when they leave within a few minutes.

8) Offer free Wi-Fi in neighbourhoods and program local business advertising on it. We want a so-called “15-minute city” to emerge of walkable resources, including shops. Ensure that local businesses have access to geographically targeted mobile advertising that pulls people into their shops. This technology is not rocket science any longer.

9) Do not discourage cars, and be bold on bikes. You can do both. It is time for some bike-only superhighways, routes that criss-cross the community and stop only for lights. It is also time to dispense with the notion that cars need to be repelled from the city core. Develop bike-only streets – the roads won’t be missed by drivers – and a parking policy to encourage cars into shopping districts for a couple of hours.

10) Decentralize city services. We are in this together, sure, but we will be in this many more times. This calls for us to move many municipal services into vacant neighbourhood offices, no different than policing services were once brought to storefronts. Bring the city to the community, create a workforce that will then consume locally.

Now, there will be howls of how much this will cost. But it will cost us more as businesses crumble, decamp their districts, and remain vacant. The city, province and country will need the revenue that comes from activity. These investments do something in that direction. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.