Slowly but surely, there’s a grey tsunami bearing down on Main Street.
No cause for panic, but the entrepreneurs of the post-war generation are clearing out their desks, and have been for some time, leaving considerable gaps in services and products in smaller centres such as Port Alberni.
Corporations can manage this inevitability through long-range planning, training, recruitment and succession, but how do small businesses make the adjustment? How do they even survive? That’s not so straightforward, says Lori Camire, executive director of Community Futures Alberni-Clayoquot.
“What we found in 2007-2008, a huge number of business owners were exiting,” Camire said. “You hear 50-70 percent over the last decade. It becomes problematic, but not when demographics are on your side. If a country or community is growing enough, it doesn’t matter.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Canada with fewer younger people available to succeed the boomers.
Eight years ago, Community Futures — a non-profit mandated to support small business, entrepreneurs and economic development — set its focus on the issue. Camire was instrumental in setting up an enterprise called Venture Connect, a subsidiary of six coastal Community Futures offices with its head office in Port Alberni. Their focus: Not a labour shortage, but an entrepreneurial shortage.
“When you think about it, 70 percent of business owners are looking to exit in the next 5-10 years,” she said. At street level, that rate of departure could shutter whole blocks. Combined with the trend toward online shopping, the generational dilemma is eroding Main Street in smaller centres.
“We’ve seen that,” Camire said.
“If you don’t have products and services in a community, people tend to go elsewhere. I don’t know if Port Alberni suffers as much as some other communities. Actually, we’re in a good position to be on the optimistic side,” she added.
There is a lot of outside interest, particularly on the international investor side, she explained.
Succession can be approached a number of ways besides an outright sale, possibly through a merger or a consolidation of several businesses under one roof. Young entrepreneurs often lack access to sufficient venture capital, another avenue of support provided by Community Futures in the form of low-interest start-up loans.
Genevieve Eichstadter, a director of the Young Professionals Alberni Valley (YPAV), said her group is well aware of the generational shift underway.
“What our demographic is seeking is team mentorship,” she said. “We’re looking for the transfer of knowledge.”
Their Nanaimo counterpart offers a mentorship program as a membership incentive, she noted. YPAV doesn’t yet have such a program, though the topic has been discussed as a means of “bridging the gap,” Eichstadter said.
Scott Lemkay called on Venture Connect when he wanted to become a minor partner in Sitka Silviculture. The company, currently relocating to Port Alberni from Cumberland, contracts with Island Timberlands (now Mosaic) for silviculture services. Lemkay needed advice and the reassurance of a partnership contract to proceed, services received from Venture Connect. “They definitely got me along the right path,” he said.
Venture Connect hasn’t been as effective as it could be, hindered by a lack of awareness, Camire said. That’s why the provincial government announced in March that it will partner with Community Futures to relaunch the program in October 2020 with an event in Vancouver called The Great B.C. Business Sale.
“It will heighten exposure. We’re making our connection in Vancouver, but the key goal with the Great B.C. Business Sale is to get people to reconsider goals that will redistribute the human commodity.”
Camire hopes to see greater buy-in, the sort of response they had to the Façade Improvement Program, a four-year partnership with the City of Port Alberni that helps businesses update their exterior look.
“It’s been a successful program,” she said, noting that eight of 10 applications approved are from the Uptown neighbourhood, a sign of renewal. “We’re pretty pleased with that.”