Local economy in recovery mode after year of turbulence

WELLINGTON COUNTY – As the entire country rolled into lockdown mode to protect against an unprecedented new health threat in March of 2020, municipal politicians and staff in Wellington County had to consider action to protect all elements of the community.

That included considering the impact on the local economy.

Wellington County director of economic development Crystal Ellis recalls planning in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic for an emergency situation with no clear timeline.

“I think we all thought that this was going to be a short-term issue,” she recalled.

“We heard concern about the abrupt stop, how long this would last, and that it was difficult to predict what was going to happen. By the end of March, a couple weeks in, the focus came to how can we help our businesses get though the next couple months?”

Ellis added, “There were concerns … about the cost of closing and the cost of reopening once given the okay to get back to work. People were nervous. There was anxiety about whether they would be able to operate one day to the next.

“Entrepreneurs are typically in control of making decisions and the pandemic took that away from them.”

The concern about the impact on local businesses proved well founded.

A survey of local businesses conducted by the Wellington County in cooperation with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs in November and December of 2020 indicted 68 per cent of respondents operated continuously throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, while close to 31% re-opened after a temporary closure and just over 1% shut down permanently.

Of 423 responses to a question on the current status of their business, 288 indicated they never closed, or remained open under alternative operating models, such as restaurants moving to takeout only.

“There will be some that have closed due to factors of the pandemic, but there is also a sense that the constraints of COVID assisted with decisions to close, retire, refocus operations.

“It is interesting to note that there have been a number of new businesses opening in the course of the last year,” Ellis observed.

The pandemic impact was felt quickly as businesses closed their doors or limited access in response to government directives. Wellington County was quick to respond with a plan to assist local businesses.

At a county council meeting held by teleconference on March 26, 2020, councillor Chris White, chair of the county’s administration, finance and human resources committee, issued a dire warning.

“When we come out of this, what’s going to happen is a lot of these businesses, frankly, will be gone … and if you look at the commercial taxes and the jobs lost and all of the impacts of having these downtown businesses disappear, it’s going to be very harsh,” he stated at the time.

At a special meeting on March 31, 2020, council authorized execution of an agreement with the Wellington-Waterloo Community Futures Development Corporation and the Saugeen Economic Development Corporation to facilitate the new Keep Well – Emergency Business Sustainability Fund.

The program to provide low-interest loans of up to $25,000 to facilitate cash flow and working capital for Wellington County businesses was funded with $1 million from the county’s contingency reserve fund and administrated by the two development corporations serving the county.

Ellis said that funding came at a time when local businesses needed it most.

“I think it provided options for businesses. It showed we were trying to find a way to help and gave them the support they needed to continue,” she said.

“This was a stressful time for businesses and thankfully we were able to help them until federal and provincial funding opened up.”

One year later, Ellis said she sees some encouraging signs.

“Most businesses we heard from are positive and operating at 75% and higher capacity compared to their regular pre-COVID operations,” she said.

“Definitely specific sectors are struggling more than others because they’re restricted from operating at full capacity; some are still finding their feet.”

Still, she concedes, the situation has gone on longer than anyone anticipated and the full impacts remain to be seen.

“Early on it seems like everyone thought we would be back to normal in a couple months’ time. Then we started hearing the phrase ‘new normal.’ This leaves the impression that these changes are here for a while,” Ellis noted.

“For businesses, the shifts and adaptations have all been different. Our business survey at the end of 2020 showed that some were seeking support, and others were in more of a holding pattern. Businesses do not want to take on more debt. Grants are welcome. Promotion and awareness and information updates have been well received.”

The impact on individuals has been varied and Ellis notes they aren’t all looking for the same type of assistance.

“There was close to a 50/50 split of businesses saying they wanted information on available resources. They either want one-on-one advice, or just want to focus on their business and almost all of them have been, at the same time, caring about the wellbeing of their staff, including their mental health. Businesses are more concerned with consumer spending, which we’ll see in the fall,” said Ellis.

“We hope our actions help business now and support their actions in the future.”

Last month, on Feb. 25, county council approved moving forward with development of an action plan to help Wellington County businesses recover from COVID-19 pandemic impacts.

The plan will utilize $200,000 in Business Retention and Expansion recovery funding from the county’s 2021 budget and focus on four key areas: operating safety, business services, mental health resources for businesses, and shop local and promote Wellington County.

The plan, which includes grants for things like accessing PPE and initiatives to support education and training, as well as mental health promotion, will be launched soon, said Ellis.

“We are close; some items are underway. We expect grant programs to be open at the beginning of April,” she told the Advertiser.

With vaccines arriving and restrictions loosening after a strict province-wide  lockdown through much of the winter, Ellis said there is hope local business can get back to something more like normal operations fairly quickly, but a cautious approach is still required.

“Everyone is wanting to get back to normal and considering we have been in this situation for a year now, I imagine there will be a natural caution as we take steps back to our pre-COVID days,” she stated.

“We will be encouraging people to shop local, explore their own communities and safely transition back. But this will take time.

“Yes, we are facilitating connections between mentors, trainers and businesses who need advice because of their struggles, but we went from barely optimistic one year ago to getting inquiries from businesses wanting to set up in Wellington County in the last month,” Ellis explained.

“If anything, the pandemic has caused more housing issues and exacerbating issues that were a challenge before, keeping our community affordable,” she added.