Invest Ottawa spearheads bid to help main street businesses go digital

E-commerce

Invest Ottawa is set to launch a new multimillion-dollar program aimed at helping brick-and-mortar retailers and other businesses set up digital storefronts as a way to generate new revenue in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

The city’s main economic development agency will work with other regional partners, including the Kingston-based Launch Lab innovation centre, to develop the new program dubbed “Future-Proofing Main Street.”

Part of a $57-million initiative funded by FedDev Ontario and the provincial government, the program is expected to help more than 4,000 businesses across eastern Ontario set up e-commerce sites and use digital technology in a bid to broaden their customer bases and access new markets.

According to a news release, local “digital experts” and up to 350 students will work with small businesses in the hospitality, retail, trades and services sectors over the next nine months to employ “digital, e-commerce and online strategies, new business models and digital technologies to access broader domestic and global markets, customers and revenue.”

Invest Ottawa and its partners will receive more than $9 million to fund the program in the capital region and southeastern part of the province. The news release says the initiative will build on Digital Main Street, a program launched by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas that’s funded by the province as well as the City of Toronto and corporate sponsors such as Google, MasterCard, Rogers, Microsoft and Shopify. Last year, the Vanier BIA received a $10,000 grant from the program for “digital service squads” to assist local merchants.

Invest Ottawa president and CEO Michael Tremblay said the money will help boost the region’s economy by making local enterprises more competitive on the world stage. 

“This new program will help companies to evolve, maintain jobs and revenue in any storm, and continue to operate and grow in any economic climate,” Tremblay said in a statement. 

“It will equip business owners from every walk of life with new digital business models and strategies, helping them to access new domestic and global markets and drive our economic recovery.”

Invest Ottawa adviser Karla Briones, who owns Freshii and Global Pet Foods franchises in Westboro, said businesses like hers have found it difficult to make ends meet as measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus have forced many retailers to close their doors for months.

“Although we rapidly evolved to serve customers in new ways, we are struggling to develop sustainable revenues in the current economic climate,” she said in a statement. “And we do not have the internal expertise to build and scale robust online businesses. I am very excited to leverage this Digital Main Street Program to help us address these gaps, and develop new digital business models and strategies that drive more consistent customer acquisition and reliable revenue.”

The initiative comes as other business organizations and advocates across Eastern Ontario, including the Kanata North Business Association and the City of Cornwall, also look to channel funds to local businesses during COVID-19 to help them build out their digital presence or move their businesses online.