The head of Ottawa’s BIA network says she’d like to see measures in the March 28 federal budget that will help return businesses to their pre-pandemic “independence.”
According to Michelle Groulx, president of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA), a big part of regaining that independence would come from the federal government extending the payment deadlines for loans received under the Canada Emergency Business Account pandemic program.
Many businesses that applied for a CEBA loan were unaware of the “prolonged and severe impacts” that the pandemic would have on their profitability, Groulx argued.
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“If they had, many would have just shut their doors permanently three years ago, and many did,” Groulx said. A recent survey of 128 local businesses conducted by OCOBIA found that the current payment deadline of Dec. 31, 2023 in order to qualify for 33-per-cent loan forgiveness could force businesses to lay off staff, delay expansion or even close their doors.
“We hope that the federal budget considers further debt forgiveness of CEBA as a signal of this understanding and a committed investment to the businesses who have been hardest hit,” Groulx said.
Groulx would also like to see the federal government commit to investing in small businesses and in the transformation of downtown Ottawa. Recovery from the pandemic has been strained and slow for businesses downtown, Groulx said, largely due to the absence of federal workers.
“A budget should commit to … transformation of any means that will result in more people downtown to support businesses on a 24/7 basis,” Groulx said.
Groulx also points to the Digital Main Street program, supported by the federal and provincial governments, which benefited many Ottawa businesses. The program, which helps businesses create a digital presence and optimize online business, was helpful during the pandemic to “offer alternatives to sales other than bricks and mortar” and save businesses the cost of digital marketing, Groulx said.
“At this time, (businesses) are looking to grow and to do so with major cost efficiencies,” Groulx added. “Programs like this help reduce outgoing costs, while boosting presence to a changed market.”
These types of measures will help local businesses regain the independence they had before the pandemic, Groulx said.
“Small businesses want to be completely independent and don’t like to ask for handouts or bailouts from the government. They have been operating successfully on their own with their customer base since prior to the pandemic,” she said. “The budget needs to reflect that the feds are willing to bring businesses back to their independent and profitable days.”
The Ottawa Board of Trade echoed these priorities, with president and CEO Sueling Ching saying the federal government “must focus on creating the right environment for business predictability, competitiveness and growth.”
The board of trade hopes to see steps “dedicated to small and medium-sized businesses in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, a national strategy to revitalize Canadian downtowns, and investments in health care and housing,” said Stephanie Montreuil, senior director of communications and public affairs.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland will table the 2023 federal budget on March 28.
The Canadian economy is expected to slow significantly this year and potentially enter a recession as high interest rates squeeze the budgets for individuals and businesses alike.
Freeland has stressed that the Liberal government is focused on fiscal restraint, so as to not work against the Bank of Canada’s efforts to tame inflation.
The Liberal government has also been facing mounting pressure to rein in spending after years of deficits that have increased the country’s pre-existing debt.
The 2022 fall economic statement indicated Ottawa plans to introduce more measures to support Canada’s green transition and stay competitive with the United States on clean technology.