Montreal merchants will qualify for up to $30,000 a year in compensation for disruptions caused by city construction projects, under a new plan unveiled Wednesday by Mayor Valérie Plante.
The city is setting aside a total of $25 million, retroactive from Jan. 1, 2016 through to the end of 2021, to help those businesses affected by municipal work sites that prevent customers from easily accessing their restaurants and stores.
"When businesses do well, the whole community does well," Plante said while announcing the plan in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.
The business-assistance plan is part of Montreal's economic development strategy for 2018-2022.
That strategy includes $360 million over the next four years to bolster the city's economy, including a planned $74 million for investments in local businesses.
Plante first promised a construction compensation package during last fall's municipal election campaign. She said Montreal is now the only city in Canada to offer such a program.
"It is a very positive and strong move in telling merchants, 'We want you to stay alive, of course, and keep your business up while we are doing construction that will benefit you in the long term,'" she said.
The business-assistance plan released Wednesday includes provisions to improve the image of commercial arteries, strengthening relationships with merchants' associations, financially supporting some startup businesses and aiding initiatives that temporarily occupy vacant space.
It's an extensive plan, Plante told reporters, that includes creating a "special status" for commercial arteries where the city will, for example, ensure the streets are cleaner and rethink snow-removal practices.
There will also be a "nightlife policy," she said, that will support businesses while working to strike a balance with surrounding residents.
Merchants still face high taxes
Not included in the plan are changes to the taxes businesses have to pay. And even though the city promises help is coming on that front, some argue the matter is urgent.
In the lead up to Wednesday's announcement, the advisory committee to the city's commercial development plan had made 23 recommendations on how Montreal can help support businesses.
Those recommendations included lightening merchants' tax burdens and making more services for businesses available online.
Desjardins CEO Guy Cormier headed that advisory committee. The Urban Development Institute of Quebec (UDI), a non-profit organization that represents the province's real estate industry, urged Plante to follow through on his recommendation to cut taxes.
"The tax question was swept under the rug despite the recommendations of Guy Cormier," the UDI said in a tweet. "Yet, Montreal merchants are the most taxed in the country."
The opposition party at city hall also criticized the plan's failure to reduce business taxes.
Ensemble Montréal added that merchants will only be eligible for financial compensation after submitting audited financial statements proving they have suffered losses.
"An action plan involves concrete measures," Lionel Perez, interim leader of Ensemble Montréal, said in a statement.
"At the moment, however, merchants still do not know when they will be able to receive the promised amounts."
Welcome relief, but distrust lingers
Downtown merchants, many of them beleaguered by seemingly unending construction projects, gave Plante's compensation package a mixed review.
Road and sidewalk construction has long been an issue of contention for business owners across the city as, they say, blocking parking and entrances slashes revenues because customers can't easily access their store or restaurant.
There are numerous cases of businesses closing, leaving owners deeply in debt.
Khalid Benthami's Le Marrakech Store, located on St-Denis Street, has been in business for nearly two decades. The recent construction near his shop meant "there were no customers coming here" for an entire year, he said.
While his business survived, he said many others did not. Merchants asked the city for support, but nothing was done, he said. Construction finally finished in October, but the customer flow still hasn't returned eight months later.
The city's plan to offer merchants up to $30,000 in compensation will help, Benthami said, but it won't bring back all the closed stores.
Overall, he said he doesn't trust Plante's announcement considering previous calls for help were ignored by the city.
"I don't think they will do something," Benthami said. "I don't trust what they announced."
But Mike Parente, director of the St-Hubert Plaza merchants' association, praised the announcement.
"It's been a long time coming," said Parente. "Merchants will be happy with the announcement. We're happy with the announcement considering that we have some major infrastructure work that's going to be on our street starting this fall."
The offered $30,000 reimbursement will be enough for some merchants, Parente said, but not for everybody.
The city has to start somewhere, he said, but "we're hoping that the city readjusts to comfort and help the merchants in all ways possible."