Yellowknife businesses are struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce is asking the city to tap into its reserve funds to help.
Chamber president Tim Syer and executive director Deneen Everett addressed city council at Monday’s Government Priorities Committee meeting. They also sent a letter with seven recommendations to the City of Yellowknife on behalf of the chamber’s 383 members.
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Those seven recommendations include asking for $2.4 million of the Revitalization Reserve and $833,000 of the city’s Downtown Development Reserve be put into a Covid-19 relief program and providing interest-free deferrals of property taxes, water/wastewater payments, development fees and business-related permit fees, as well as making all business licensing and permitting available online.
The chamber is also asking that the municipality work with the GNWT and Government of Canada to create a Covid-19 commercial rent strategy for Yellowknife to “provide rental relief for businesses who have been forced to close or are unable to generate revenue as a result of Covid-19.”
Syer said this is among the biggest challenges that businesses face and that it’s important the municipality support the higher levels of government.
“What we’re finding is that rent and mortgages (and) those fixed costs are the costs that are going to tip our businesses into insolvency,” he said. “There’s nothing that businesses can do about their mortgage and rent payments except not pay them. They can’t lay off their landlord or their bank and these are the costs that are going to be the hardest to deal with.”
Other recommendations to the territorial government include amending the Employment Standards Act’s requirement to recall laid off employees within 60 days of a layoff to give employers the ability to recall laid off employees up to 30 days after the lifting of the Northwest Territories state of emergency. The chamber is also asking the GNWT to allow for an additional intake for the Business Development Investment Corporation’s working capital loan with new loans to be interest-free; allowing liquor off-sales and delivery for businesses as part of food service; issuing payments to all GNWT vendors within 15 days of getting an invoice; waiving Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission premiums this year and half in 2021; topping up the federal wage subsidy to ensure northern workers make a salary related to the cost of living.
Monday’s presentation also touched on the chamber’s request to the federal government to waive the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program’s 30 per cent reduction in gross revenue requirement for NWT businesses that have incurred losses from the pandemic and government restrictions.
Last week, the federal Canadian Economic Northern Development Agency (CanNor) announced $15 million to support small and medium sized businesses in the three northern territories. Syer said this will mean that the NWT will only get five million, but he hopes to see more in the future.
The chamber’s information presented to council is based on its annual survey that has been ongoing since earlier this month. The chamber is also making phone calls to members to get feedback to see how they’re doing and what they need in terms of government support. Among the comments the chamber has been hearing from members include stories of hardship and concerns over the ability maintain and rebuild their workforce after the pandemic, according to Everett.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said, “For the territorial recommendations, council was in support of writing a letter of support and then for this seven recommendations that the chamber presented, I think council was supportive of some others, while others they wanted to look at a bit further.”
Some of the items requested have already been done since the pandemic began, like providing interest-free taxes was already put in place in March and moving permitting and licensing online has happened, Alty noted.
Other items, such as fees and charges, are going to require further thought, which council will examine during the annual fees and charges bylaw review and mill rate discussions in May.
“We’re getting lots of requests from residents and businesses on waiving this fee or that charge or reduce those taxes,” said Alty.
After the meeting, Everett said she was encouraged by some of the signs of support the chamber received.
“We were very pleased that the city was eager to support our territorial recommendations and letter of support,” she said. “That is fantastic news and will help our advocacy work and the more support we can get, the better.”
She said it’s important to note that the chamber does not view the recommendations as asking for handouts from government but assistance in stimulating the economy, including through infrastructure investments and expediting capital projects.
“We really want to have the conversation about opening things up and what does that look like and that the City of Yellowknife has a role to play,” she said.