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Fledgling small businesses battle against COVID odds

Starting up a small business can be fraught at the best of times, but for fledgling entrepreneurs like Kim Hayhurst, the novel coronavirus pandemic has added a whole new level of uncertainty.

Starting up a small business can be fraught at the best of times, but for fledgling entrepreneurs like Kim Hayhurst, the novel coronavirus pandemic has added a whole new level of uncertainty.

Just a week before "everything shut down," she and her partner had signed a six-year lease for a spot at 1135 Fifth Ave., near George Street downtown, where they have been working to open The Makerie.

"It's a craft and coffee bar, is the short way that we're terming it," Hayhurst said. "It's a hands-on space where you can come and be creative and we'll have projects and staff who are called 'craft vendors' who will be there to help people get crafty.

"And then we have an integrated coffee bar with specialty coffee and a really elevated coffee service as well, so that just becomes this really warm vibe and a very welcoming, creative space."

The pandemic put those plans on hold as people scrambled to adjust.

"We were trying to get architects together and the City involved and all these normal business processes that you'd go through...there were tonnes of delays that you not necessarily would've had," Hayhurst said.

She didn't given up. The Makerie opened on Saturday and that was none too soon.

"We've been hanging on by a thread," Hayhurst said.

The uncertainty is the biggest concern. Unable to secure a bank loan at a reasonable rate, Hayhurst and her partner had been dipping into the line of credit for their home to meet ongoing expenses.

"You don't know how long things are going to go for," Hayhurst said. "Even if things are easing up, there's still all that conversation about whether a second wave will happen and we're back in lockdown again.

"It becomes really scary as you're hiring staff, as you're making big purchases in order to get your business up and running, to make those kinds of commitments and not knowing if you're going to be able to actually open your doors and even if you do open your doors, are you going to be able to keep them open."

While the federal government's Canada Emergency Response Benefit has been hailed as a lifesaver for many, the same has not been said of its programs to help businesses.

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy has been labeled ineffective and paper-laden - and in the case of a venture like Hayhurst's, it wouldn't qualify at all. To receive CEWS, it must have been operating for at least two years, a bit of irony not lost on Hayhurst.

"As a startup business, there is nothing for you," Hayhurst said.

Likewise, the Canada Emergency Commercial Rental Assistance program, Ottawa's scheme to help building owners and their tenants through the tough times, has drawn poor reviews. Bob Hillhouse of Prince George-based property management firm Majestic Management, dismissed the program as window dressing.

"I'm not happy with it at all," he said. "The federal government is making it look like they want to help commercial tenants but they're making it next to impossible for the landlords to apply, they're making it just a nasty situation."

Shortcomings, in Hillhouse's view, include the fact that while the federal government will cover 50 per cent of the monthly rent, it only comes in the form of a forgivable loan.

"If the landlord makes one little mess up from here until the end of December or later, they don't forgive the loan," he said. "So the landlord is now taking a 75-per-cent haircut and it's easy to mess it up."

Added to the trouble, he said Ottawa also wants the property manager's personal information alongside information related specifically to the firm.

"I kid you not," he said. "They want my driver's licence, front and back, my credit card statements for the year, all my banking statements for the year and any information on outstanding loans that I personally have. And I don't own these buildings, I'm not a party to the transaction, I'm just filling out the paperwork."

He said Majestic has been trying for weeks to get help for its tenants .

"It is a pile of work and your applications will almost all get rejected in the first go around," Hillhouse said.

While the federal programs have been drawing criticism, the business community is keeping an eye on the $1.5 billion the provincial government has earmarked for an economic recovery plan. Details on how it will be spent will be unveiled in short order and Prince George Chamber of Commerce president Todd Corrigall hopes new ventures do not get lost in the shuffle.

"You've got people who are taking the biggest risks, more than likely, of their lives because they found a niche that they think will be successful and beneficial to the community as a whole," he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness said the government is currently reviewing proposals for the plan.

"In the weeks ahead, we look forward to sharing new and expanded ways to support people and businesses as COVID-19 recovery continues," the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, business partners Travis Kozma and Daniell Aben aren't letting the pandemic get in the way of opening a new restaurant at 363 George Street. The Firm Lounge and Grill will offer "locally-inspired entrees, delicious starters, or devilishly rich after dinner treats," according to its website.

Other than a delay in getting the booths shipped up from the United States, Kozma said getting it up and operating has been going smoothly in spite of the pandemic.

"It made me double think about whether it was a perfect time to open but I looked over the logistics of it and how people are slowly getting back to work...people seem to be comfortable and somewhat getting out during this whole pandemic," he said.

Restaurant manager Terence Checkley said meeting standards set out in answer to the virus will mean extra work.

"Most of the restrictions are around how you sanitize things and how you basically follow your guests around to make sure everything they touch gets sanitized before anyone else can touch it," Checkley said.

"It's cleaning doorknobs and cleaning out the seating - things that you would usually do at the end of the night you now have to do every time a guest leaves."

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