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Pandemic significantly impacts Airdrie's economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has already impacted Airdrie's economy to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and thousands of job losses.

At a regular meeting April 20, Sara Chamberlain, team lead for Economic Development, presented Airdrie City council with the findings from a survey of local businesses. The survey was conducted March 25 to 30 and included 822 respondents, most of whom are either storefront- or home-based business-owners in Airdrie.

"We know that is 31 per cent of all of Airdrie’s licenced businesses, and it is 40 per cent of storefronts," Chamberlain said. "It is not statistically valid – I do need to let you to know that – but we really do believe this is a significant representation of our community."

The survey estimated the financial impact of the pandemic was already between $19 million and $40 million by the end of March.

"No surprise here – we knew we were going to hear COVID has had a very negative impact on our business community," Chamberlain said. "I think it is important to understand that what we see in the survey – it is a lot worse today than it was three weeks ago – but I think this paints a really good picture of what businesses were feeling at the time of the survey. We know the stress on them and their expenses have only heightened since then."

Fifty-two per cent of the 325 storefront businesses surveyed reported losses in revenue between $10,000 and $50,000, while 11 large-scale businesses reported losses over $500,000.

Regarding layoffs, 70 per cent of surveyed storefronts confirmed they had to lay off employees in March, while 130 businesses reported they had let go of more than 90 per cent of their staff.

Roughly 2,400 employees ­­– 15 per cent of Airdrie’s workforce ­– had already been laid off by March 25, the survey found, with most coming from the accommodation and food services sector, as well as retail. Airdrie’s estimated local workforce includes roughly 16,000 people, according to Chamberlain.

Only five respondents stated their business was currently hiring, Chamberlain added, and roughly a dozen reported they were "actually doing well during COVID-19."

"We do know there are businesses that are still functioning very healthily and successfully under these restrictions," she said. "What we do know is some of them have seen an increase in sales and customers, and they reported that to us."

The situation is so dire that nine per cent of storefronts said they would have to close within three months if current conditions persist, while 21 per cent said they could potentially last up to six months without assistance before shuttering.

Chamberlain said respondents were asked if they would be able to adapt their business model without physically being open, such as offering services online, delivery or curb-side pickup, and most said they could not.

"It is a little bit of a concern, because 72 per cent of our storefront businesses said they couldn’t adapt," she said. "When we look at the provincial survey, only 60 per cent said they couldn’t adapt, so we are seeing a gap there. We don’t know if it’s something that businesses needed a little more time to figure out, and now they have. We might have to do more digging into this to see what is happening in this area."

Home-based businesses were also hit hard, according to the findings, albeit to a lesser degree than storefronts. The survey indicated the total value of financial impacts to home businesses was between $880,000 and $2.5 million, with 37 per cent claiming they could not manage expenses for more than one month without assistance.

After presenting the survey’s findings, Chamberlain discussed some of the supports the City of Airdrie is offering to businesses throughout the pandemic, including temporary financial measures such as tax penalty waiving, a deferral of utilities payments, the suspension of the industrial wastewater monitoring program and elimination of surcharges.

"When you look at what respondents say they will need to recover, 72 per cent – almost the vast majority – are saying they will need government grants or low- or no-interest-rate loans to survive," she said.

The City's other measures include a relaxation in the sign-advertising bylaw and a Business Support Program that will launch in May. It will also collaborate with the Airdrie Chamber of Commerce and Bow Valley College’s Entrepreneur Centre, which has held nine webinars providing advice to local businesses.

"I think it is important for us to keep reminding businesses that our services continue at the City," Chamberlain said. "We are reallocating much of our 2020 budget to respond to COVID.

"In terms of filling gaps, we are working with businesses every day to help them solve problems and fill those gaps, while also creating our Business Support Program."

From a marketing perspective, the City has also launched a shop-local awareness campaign called, Chamberlain said. The initiative includes an online directory of local businesses that are still open, and includes information on their hours and any restrictions that are in place.

Scott Strasser,
Follow me on Twitter @scottstrasser19

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