The first Business Walk program in Fort St. James took the pulse of 55 local businesses in July, with volunteers talking to owners and managers about a variety of topics, including the overall health of their businesses, what concerns they have, and what can be done to help businesses in the Fort grow.
Some 87% of the businesses surveyed said that business was either fair/steady or good/increasing when compared with last year. However, concerns such as the difficulty in finding and retaining staff, competition from larger centres and online shopping, and the higher cost of doing business in Fort St. James were common themes.
Economic Development Officer Emily Colombo said that only two businesses declined to take part, and that those that did were very receptive to the program. “A team of fourteen volunteers went around town and conducted in-person surveys. The Business Walk program works best when done face-to-face, so that we let businesses know we’re interested. The best responses, conversations, and data come when we can have a conversation with business owners where they are.”
Among the program’s findings were that 12 of the business owners surveyed intend to retire or sell their business within the next five years, but only five have a succession plan in place; that businesses not in the downtown core want to feel more included; that many businesses already in the downtown area have outgrown their current space; and that job training workshops would be appreciated in helping to remedy labour issues. The survey also revealed that the 55 businesses that took part employ 588 people between them: 333 full-time, 143 part-time, and 112 seasonal.
“We received feedback about current programs, and what business owners would like to see,” says Colombo. “It’s important to hear what we can improve on, as well as what we’re doing right.” She acknowledges that the follow-up to the survey will be very important. “People often feel that research happens, but the outcomes don’t go anywhere.”
The follow-up has already started, with businesses being encouraged to look into the Northern Development Initiative Trust Business Façade Improvement program. NDIT allocates $20,000 to the community that can be accessed by business owners who want to improve the façade of their building, and provides matching funds up to $5,000. Colombo says that the program was promoted to owners during the Business Walk, and there has been a huge take-up. “Last year only $500 was requested under the program; in 2015 we’ve had requests totalling $16,300.” Requests are assessed on a first come, first served basis, and the deadline has been extended until Sept. 16.
This week will see copies of the final report of the Business Walk being taken door-to-door to local businesses, and beginning in October the District, in partnership with the Fort St. James Chamber of Commerce, will be holding a series of “lunch and learn” workshops. “They’re designed for business owners and managers,” says Colombo, and each will focus on a different topic, such as staff retention, marketing, succession planning, procurement, and customer service. The workshops will be on the third Tuesday of each month, with the first one taking place on Oct. 20 from 1:00–4:00pm. Anyone wanting to take part should RSVP to the District Office at (250) 996-8233.
Another initiative, from the District, is the Community Revitalisation Tax Exemption program, which is available for any commercial or industrial property owner looking to invest $100,000 or more in their property in 2016 and which will result in increased property tax value assessments. Successful applicants will see no increase in their property taxes for the first year, with 20% of the full tax rate added each year for five years.
This year’s Business Walk was a partnership between the District of Fort St. James, the Fort St. James Chamber of Commerce, and the provincial Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training. The volunteers who conducted the survey came from the District (including the mayor and members of Council), the Chamber of Commerce, NDIT, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, Community Futures Stuart Nechako, and the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training, which helped plan, prepare, execute, and report on the program.