New program offers B.C. businesses grants to build or expand online stores

·3 min read

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government is introducing a new grant program to support small and medium-sized businesses in expanding or pivoting to online sales.

Ravi Kahlon, minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation, said Wednesday the government is spending $12 million to help about 1,500 businesses launch or upgrade online stores.

"COVID has shifted the way we do business and the way consumers consume. And so it's critically important that we, as a province, support our businesses in that shift," Kahlon said.

The grants will provide business owners with up to $7,500 each and comes from the $1.5-billion Stronger BC funding announced in September. A portion of the funding will be reserved for Indigenous businesses.

Kahlon acknowledged during a news conference that there have been delays in getting some previously announced support funding out the door for small and medium-sized businesses.

Only about $12 million of the $300-million recovery grant program introduced in October has been distributed, he said.

In December, the government eased requirements for struggling businesses applying for the recovery grants. It expanded eligibility to seasonal and temporarily closed businesses, and reduced the required length of time that a business had to be operating to 18 months from three years.

On Wednesday, Kahlon said the government has received about 4,000 new applications in recent weeks, more than 60 per cent of which come from the beleaguered tourism sector.

The remaining delay is due to a two-step process that requires applicants to first submit a recovery plan before they are approved for funding, he said.

Todd Stone, the B.C. Liberal critic for jobs, economic recovery and innovation, said the new e-commerce funding is too little too late.

"We have little confidence in the timely delivery of this program announced by the NDP today as they continue to bungle and botch support for small businesses," Stone said in a statement.

"Why launch a new program while the majority of funds for the existing Small and Medium-Sized Business Recovery Grant program are still stuck in the NDP's hands as the March 31 deadline to get them out the door approaches?" he said.

The B.C. government says the program runs until March 31 or until the funds are fully allocated, whichever comes first.

Kahlon promised that none of the funds would go to waste. The government has had to be flexible as new challenges and "pressure points" arise during the pandemic, he said.

"We'll continue to look at where the pressure points are in our economy," Kahlon said.

Amy Hall, founder of Goldilocks Wraps, said the pandemic forced her business to make a drastic shift to e-commerce. The company, which makes beeswax alternative to plastic wrap, had a small online presence at the outset of the pandemic. In 2020, online sales comprised almost all of its revenue, she said.

"Having an online presence has gone from being an added bonus to an absolute necessity."

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade counted 4,380 fewer active businesses in the region by the end of 2020 since the start of the pandemic in a recent analysis. Between December 2019 and December 2020, the region lost 40,700 jobs, it said.

— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.

The Canadian Press