Word of a probable end to the longest forest sector strike in memory — news welcomed by all — is music to the ears of the Port Alberni business community.
“This will make people happy again,” said Bill Collette, Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO.
While idled mill workers and logging subcontractors struggled to make ends meet, Main Street Port Alberni took a big hit as well.
“We’re really quite concerned about the business community,” Councillor Deb Haggard said shortly before a labour mediation breakthrough was announced. “If a small business closes, we won’t be able to get them back, so we’re exploring the options to get them through this little hurdle. Many are just basically hanging on.”
No one expected the strike would go on for more than seven months. Some retailers reported Christmas sales were down by 40 or 50 percent, Haggard said. That can bring a challenge, particularly for smaller retail businesses forced to carry unsold inventory while having to order spring stock, she said.
The forest sector and related services took another hit in late fall: Mosaic Forest Management shut down operations due to poor market conditions. The curtailment continues, now in its third month. United Steelworkers were voting on whether to accept the tentative agreement, with results supposed to come on Saturday, Feb. 15, after the AV News’ print deadline.
“I think we were hearing from quite a few that it was a tough time,” said Pat Deakin, the city’s economic development manager. “We like to keep a good number of small businesses in the community, but we’re also concerned about some of the logging subcontractors. Some have had big losses.”
A couple of local merchants did close their doors early in the new year, but those closures weren’t necessarily due to a slowdown in business, Collette said.
“I’m not specifically aware of any shutdown because of it, but I can certainly suggest the impact has been felt,” Collette said, citing a December survey indicating retail sales were down during the all-important year-end.
As the dispute dragged on and the economic impact grew, the chamber’s board considered ways in which small businesses might weather the storm.
“It came up around the table,” said Bill Collette, chamber manager. Had the strike continued, they would have explored “many other options.”
The city had considered extending its deadline for business licence renewal, Haggard said. She was also looking into potential for financial assistance.
“I’ve been connecting with Community Futures to see if they can do small business loans as a step,” said Haggard, who used to work for the nonprofit agency. “It’s for startups and for existing businesses.”
Lori Camire, executive director of Community Futures Alberni Clayoquot, confirmed that option is available to local businesses experiencing tough times. She also noted that none had approached Community Futures for financial assistance due to the impact of the strike.
Collette was optimistic about the settlement and pointed to encouraging developments among Uptown businesses. The Flooring Depot is expanding, Healthy Habits recently relocated to a larger location and the Steampunk Café has new owners. Meanwhile, Dog Mountain Brewing opened early in the new year. Down on Argyle Street, Full of Beans Play Café closed but the business has been purchased since then, Collette said.
“The negativity is far outweighed by positive activities,” he said. “There’s a lot of good happening.”