As businesses in Port Alberni begin to re-open after months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, a number of local organizations are offering supports to make sure their businesses stay healthy and viable.
Community Futures, a non-profit mandated to support small business, entrepreneurs and economic development, has been offering modified loans, with no interest and deferred payments. Community Futures is also assisting local businesses with human resources issues, loss of income, how to follow COVID-19 protocols and business strategies.
“Within a couple of days of restrictions being announced, I was contacting all of our clients,” said Community Futures Alberni-Clayoquot executive director Lori Camire. “Some businesses need to adjust their systems. We provide coaching and planning.”
While some businesses already have websites in place, others need help using technology to communicate with their customers.
“People are getting into the groove of pivoting their business online,” said Camire. “Some are struggling more than others.”
To help with this, the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce has launched a website called Better Buy Port Alberni, where people can find local businesses and purchase gift cards. The website offers an online presence for businesses that do not have a site of their own.
Chamber president and local business owner Sarah Jones says that CEO Bill Collette has put in an “immense amount of work” to offer help to local businesses. The chamber has been hosting a number of webinars for its members, talking to experts in things like building websites and human resources.
“Some of us have never had to lay off a staff member before,” said Jones. “Everything was a bit difficult.”
The chamber first responded to the pandemic by starting a business resilience survey, in partnership with Community Futures and the City of Port Alberni, to touch base with the local business community and see what their concerns are.
“We wanted to take a temperature—a really in-depth temperature,” said Jones. “Bill has been studying all the funding that is available, looking for different avenues to keep local businesses open and viable.”
Camire said Community Futures took a lot of that data to put together some of their resources for local businesses. Port Alberni, added Camire, has a “very diverse” business community.
“Some have suffered greatly, others are doing very well,” she said. “A few people starting new businesses were delayed somewhat, but the entrepreneurial juices are still very rich. I was very pleasantly surprised by that.”
The COVID-19 restrictions came into place right at the end of an eight-month forestry strike. The impact of this strike is hard to measure, said Camire.
“The strike was critical,” said Camire. “It does have an impact on the community. But because of the diverse nature of business in Port Alberni, the economy is more diverse than it was 10 years ago.”
Community Futures, the Chamber of Commerce, the city, the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District and the Port Alberni Port Authority (PAPA) have been working together to come up with an economic recovery plan in order to shift from a pre-COVID world to post-COVID.
“The city and the chamber, and others, have worked really hard to try and support the local economy,” said Jones. “Of course they’re not going to fix COVID. But they’re doing their part, and they’ve done as much as they possibly can. It’s going to take everyone working together to get us through this.”
Camire believes there is some good coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Residents are recognizing the value of the people around them and are looking to support local businesses,” she said. “There are so many businesses that are moving forward and coming out stronger on the other side.”