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Sinking Vancouver Island small businesses say aid package too little, too late

Rent abatement and cash up front is needed, say owners
Chef Dustin Riley nurses a cold can of Lucky Lager in his empty Ucluelet restaurant ‘The Blue Room’ over Easter long weekend. (Nora O’Malley photo)

Like many small business owners across Canada, chef Dustin Riley of Ucluelet’s ‘The Blue Room’ finds himself with an emotional decision to make: Sink or swim?

“I went through a really dark time right after closing and I was ready to walk away. But I can’t do that to the community. I’d rather go down fighting then just walk away,” Riley said over the telephone, choking back tears.

He opened his west coast bistro 10 years ago after falling in love with the small fishing town. Leading up to the annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival that was supposed to kick-off on March 20, Riley said he was fully staffed and had proudly secured employee housing for four of his team members – a feat that is an ongoing struggle unto itself in the tourism-driven west coast region.

Then he had to pull the plug when B.C.’s top doctor ordered all restaurants across the province to close its doors to dine-in guests.

“At the beginning of [April], $4,300 came out of my bank account for housing that we are not going to be able to use,” he said. “I had to lay off my staff. In my conscience mind I couldn’t have these new employees pay for staff (accommodations) when they had just moved. I was floating them. I would do anything for my staff because without them I am nothing.”

The proverbial life raft bobbing on the horizon for Canadian small business owners like Riley is a $40,000 interest-free loan, offered up as part of the federal governments $25 billion loan program to support small businesses and non-profits.

To qualify for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) as it is being referred to, organizations will need to demonstrate they paid between $50,000 to $1 million in total payroll in 2019. Up to $10,000 of the $40,000 will be eligible for complete forgiveness if $30,000 is fully repaid on or before December 31, 2022.

NDP small business critic Gord Johns, MP for Courtenay-Alberni, said the CEBA needs to be more flexible.

“Get rid of the payroll limitations on the $40,000 loan so that everyone can access it. Keep it universal,” said Johns. “If you’re a proprietorship, and it’s you and your partner, you get nothing.”

“The $10,000 repayable that you get as a grant if you pay it back by Dec. 2022, what we are saying, and this is supported by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, is give the grant up front. People actually need cash up front, right now,” Johns continued.

In an April 9 Finance Committee meeting, NDP critic for finance Peter Julian, MP for New Westminster-Burnaby, raised a concrete example of a popular Ucluelet food truck ‘Jiggers Fish and Chips’ applying for the loan, but because their payroll requirement fell $483 short of the minimal payroll requirement, they were rejected by the system.

“The regulations, do they not need to be much more flexible both in terms of loans, but also in terms of the wage subsidy and that 30 per cent threshold,” said Julian.

Save Small Business, a grassroots coalition of over 20,000 small businesses across Canada, is calling on all levels of government to provide a “land-lord friendly” commercial rent abatement strategy.

A survey sent to businesses who signed up via showed that 38 per cent of small businesses will default on their commercial rents on April 1. By May 1, 70 per cent of small businesses will have defaulted.

“There is a fundamental unfairness in asking businesses to close to protect the community, and then asking them to take on debt to make sure costs like rent, phone bills and debt payments are paid in full,” said Jon Shell, Save Small Business co-founder, in a media release. “This crisis calls for more equitable burden sharing.”

Save Small Business launched a petition asking the federal government to “mandate the first $10,000 of commercial rent is waived for three months and give landlords the support they need to make it happen.” As of April 10, over 25,000 small business owners and over 6,100 individuals had signed.

Blue Room’s chef re-iterates what is being offered is not enough.

“That 40 grand that they are offering and those tax breaks, it’s just not enough.”

And the community vibe between West Coast restaurant owners is sadly sinking too, Riley observes.

“Everyone is fighting for crumbs right now. The whole working together that we were doing really well at, it’s going to come back to ‘I’m in it for myself’. Those crumbs, even if they do open up in July and August, the crumbs will be pretty sparse for the widespread of restaurants that we have,” he said.

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READ: B.C.’s COVID-19 rent supplement starts taking applications

READ: Canada lost more than a million jobs in March, but April may be even worse