In an instant, the wheels ground to a halt. The momentum that many cities and countries had created related to international investment interest was suddenly disrupted with the cancellation of international flights, the closure or borders and even the opportunity to meet face to face, where business relationships have most commonly been built. A global pandemic which has interrupted economies around the globe introduced a new slate of considerations for business – and with new rules dictated by government agencies at a Provincial and Federal level, it created a need for a re-focus of our efforts.

With investment activity interrupted, it brought to focus the crisis situation for many entrepreneurs and even long-time business owners already invested in the community. Entire industry sectors were put on hold – airlines, hotels, amusement parks, hair salons, night clubs, concerts and events were suspended or seriously compromised. New health edicts for social distancing and reduced capacity spurred the short term closure of many independent shops and services who did not have the space to adapt to the new measures, or the financial capacity to implement the needed changes. Restaurants forced to reduce occupancy were struggling to balance the ledger and still ensure that their business maintained the necessary cash flow. But perhaps even more challenging for business owners continues to be that the timeline for a return to business as usual is yet undetermined.

While governments were quick to respond with stimulus programs and income assistance for individuals who were out of work due to the pandemic situation, and programs were announced to support business with wage subsidies and rent allowances, there were still a number of merchants who did not qualify or whose needs could not be readily addressed by the financial aid that was available. As each week clicked by without reprieve, they watched as revenues dropped while operating expenses remained unchanged. With reports in the Canadian media suggesting that as many as 74% of small businesses would not survive the pandemic period, there was a need to take measurable action in support of business.

Many communities launched ‘Support local’ marketing campaigns designed to direct traffic to local independent businesses. These included spotlight pieces in media, or websites developed to showcase the hours and accommodations made by local merchants to still remain in operation and provide services to their clientele.

As a City, in Abbotsford, British Columbia, we looked at how best we could align with the business community and demonstrate meaningful support for their plight beyond our continued role in advocacy to senior levels of government. The result was a first of its kind collaboration in the City which broke down agency silos and brought together groups that had historically not worked together before.

The Abbotsford Business Community Coalition (ABCC) brought together the local Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Business Association, Indo-Canadian Business Association, University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford Tech District, the Tourism Society, local media outlets, as well as City Economic Development and external funding and support agencies with a focus on creating solutions for the business community. The program, which pooled resources and expertise looked to support businesses in two ways.

Crossing streams, it was easy to see where the common ground existed across the mandates of the multiple organizations at the table and what shared challenges also were of greatest concern to their respective memberships. While it was understood that many merchants would be interested in an opportunity for grant funding, it was also critical to recognize that as these funding streams were going to be generated among the coalition partners, that we needed to bring something more than money to the table.

Sure, small businesses were feeling the financial pinch and there was an opportunity to create a small pool of emergency relief grant funding for those merchants. But the survival of a business would not be reliant on covering the equivalent of one month’s rent or routine operating expenses such as utilities. We also wanted to help those companies to build their own capacity, particularly where there was a needed pivot to an e-commerce avenue with online purchasing, delivery and other alternatives that reduced the reliance on foot traffic into their physical retail spaces.

The coalition developed a website which brought all of the needed resources to a single, easy to navigate portal. Not only did this help to streamline where the latest health orders and regulations could be found, it also included links to the national business resilience network, Provincial economic development association tools and resources, and other agencies that had a mandate to support local economic recovery. The coalition also engaged in a summer-long, multiplatform media campaign and commissioned a video to promote that businesses were in fact reopened and encouraged citizens to discover how businesses had been able to adapt to provide service and still address public sensitivities over the risk of potential contagion.

Sure, the financial element spoke to some of the most pressing needs of small business owners and relief grants of up to $2,500 were made available by application to the coalition. Though the individual grant amount seemed small, it’s impact was found to be overwhelmingly positive for the recipients.

“This makes a big difference for small businesses like mine,” said grant recipient Josh Reynolds of Illustrate Collective. “The money helps, but it’s also reassuring just to be reminded that the business community has our back.”

At the City’s Economic Development office, the strategy focused largely on how existing tools could be used to the benefit of the business community. By adding an additional layer to the City’s existing site finder GIS mapping system, the department was able to plot the location of open businesses, share their hours and visually illustrate what vendors were open in each neighborhood to help citizens comply with health orders and limit their travel and interactions.

But despite the collective efforts and best practices of economic development agencies around the globe, we all still face an uncertain future. As we continue to monitor and adapt to ever-changing information surrounding the present pandemic, we can recognize that we may still be months and perhaps years away from a full return to business as we’ve known it. And just as many public and private firms are more fully embracing the concept of remote work environments and virtual connectivity through a variety of webbased platforms, we will continue to see one of the most aggressive disruptions in recent years that is shaping the future of business.

FDI SUMMER ISSUE ARTICLES ABBORTSFORD For economic developers, we have been able to provide service while working from a new set of protocols and connecting through mediums regularly that maybe we hadn’t before. We may well discover that we are better prepared to engage in investment attraction on an international level using the virtual tools that we’ve had an opportunity to master while supporting our existing business community.