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Nov. 29, 2021 | Monday
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Business is tough, but owners see potential silver linings
Rick Jorgensen, owner of OliV Tasting Room. (Richard Harley)

While business is slowwww right now, some Niagara-on-the-Lake owners and operators are hopeful for what the future holds.

Rick Jorgensen, owner of OliV Tasting Room, said while the lockdown is making things extremely tough, the pandemic may bring with it some silver linings.

One is that between the first and second wave, a lot more Canadians discovered Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“To me, that was a positive because when we were open throughout the summer, we heard over and over again that 'This is the first time we've been to this area. We usually go to Nova Scotia or to the States or whatever,’” Jorgensen said.

“So, the beauty of it was that we got to expose the area to more Canadians. And, if that carries forward, then I think it'll be a good thing for us.”

He said during the first reopening, the influx of Canadians really helped boost some businesses.

When stores reopened, "business ramped up pretty quickly" with visitors coming to the community and area tourism activities, he said.

“Even with the border closed we were recovering quite well. But now it's come to a grinding halt. So, who knows?”

He said he thinks next summer will be similar to 2020 and doesn’t expect the border will be open.

“Nor do I think we want it to open, just because of the level of infection in the States,” he said.

Still, he said, it bodes well that Canadians were coming to the area.

“And that was without some of the major attractions like the Shaw or even Fort George,” he said, adding he thinks the wineries played “an important part” in bringing people to NOTL.

“They managed their visitations very well, I thought, and were still able to conduct tours. The tour companies adjusted and adapted and that really helped the local businesses.”

Of course, the success of spring and summer 2021 will depend largely on what happens with the provincial lockdown.

“Up until the second wave we were doing OK. But now with this latest lockdown, it's pretty tough,” he said.

Meantime, Jorgensen has concerns about the town discouraging tourism.

“It has become really kind of a tourist-unfriendly place. I hope that won't carry on into the future, that people will understand why, and will forgive the town when they are able to travel again, but we'll see.”

Bob Jackson, chief executive at Lais Hotels Properties, said he saw the same thing during summer 2020, with a lot more Canadians coming to town and staying at the hotels.

He suspects if things open up this year, it will be similar, with Canadians looking to stay within southern Ontario.

“I think that there's going to be a lot of pent-up demand in the market. I think Canadians in general will be at least, at first, probably somewhat hesitant to travel very far,” he said.

“So those two things combined could make for a very good season, depending on the timing of how everything is rolling out as we head into summer. So there is optimism.”

Like every other business, he wants to be open.

“We're starting to see some positive signals out there in terms of cases coming down and hopefully that continues so we can start opening up. Our main thing is our team members and it's been a struggle for everybody. We want to welcome people back, get everybody back to work.”

Jorgensen said for now businesses are just trying to keep their ships afloat.

“We're trying to stay alive right like everybody else and we'll see if we can and hopefully we will. It'll take a few years for things to get back to normal," he said.

But if the reopening is well-managed, he is confident businesses will bounce back, as they did after the first wave. "We were able to recover faster than I thought we would.”

 

 

Sidebar: Shops need more help from government, Jorgensen says

 

With rent subsidies changed, government pandemic aid programs aren’t as helpful as previously, says Rick Jorgensen, owner of OliV Tasting Room.

“We were one of the lucky ones. Our landlord was really good and participated in the first rental rebate,” he said in an interview.

“But now we're into the second wave and it's really confusing how (the government is) doing it because now it's on a sliding scale … it's really kind of after the fact.”

With the new rent subsidy, businesses have to pay rent upfront and “hope to get something back,” he said.

“And I don't know if people are going to be able to survive that.”

He also echoed the complaint of many other business owners: If Costco can open for 300 people, why can’t his small business open and manage the number of customers?

Jorgensen said small business owners are better able to control who comes into their stores.

“We can control our own premises. And we did throughout the summer. We would limit the number of people that could come in and we would basically in between customers shut and lock the door. You can't do that at a big box store,” he said.

He also takes issue with box stores being able to sell items that other stores can’t.

“I feel for some of the businesses on Queen Street who were selling clothing or those kinds of items. And yet, a Walmart or any other big box store was allowed to sell that. It doesn't make sense. They'd be better off to shut down the big boxes and let the small retailers stay open.”

Technically his store is a market and would be allowed to open, but he has decided to stick to curbside operation for now, partly due to the size of the store, which can’t hold many people, and the lack of people on the street.

“We have to limit the number of people that come in to the store anyway and there's not enough foot traffic to warrant the labour expense,” he said.

“What we're doing now is curbside service for limited hours, a few times a week. And then we're offering local delivery within Niagara-on-the-Lake so people can call, make their order and we'll deliver it to their residence. Or if they want to go for a walk and come uptown, we'll arrange for curbside pickup for them. “

While the support of local residents is gratifying and helpful, it simply isn’t enough to pay the high commercial rents charged on Queen Street, he said, whichis about $100 per square foot. For many businesses on the street, that's between $10,000 and $15,000 per month.

 

 

 

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