Lessons Learned: Supporting Main Street Business Through Recovery

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How can governments launch effective, outcome-oriented programs that support main street businesses through times of crisis? On July 29th, UrbanLogiq hosted a webinar, “Supporting Main Street Business Through Recovery”, endeavouring to find out. We sat down with the City of Toronto’s Director of COVID-19 Business Mitigation and Recovery, Chris Rickett, to discuss his approach to effective programming.

Former municipal councillor, economic development professional, environmental planner, and community rabble-rouser, Rickett is a civic innovator with a long resume of main street advocacy. Since returning to the City in April, Rickett has supported the rapid growth of Digital Main Street (DMS), whose mission to assist small businesses with digital transformation has gained national traction over the course of the pandemic. DMS’ latest program, ShopHERE, helps Toronto’s independent businesses and artists launch online stores to support or compensate for their bricks and mortar shop locations.

When it comes to gaining support for and launching programs to support main streets through adversity, below are the key takeaways from our conversation with Chris.

1. Innovation necessitates agility and risk

The pandemic continues to evolve and reveal new information. As it does, we are all honing our ability to react and adapt nimbly. Innovation necessitates risk and during this unprecedented time, government agencies are encouraged to think creatively and unconventionally to deliver solutions fast.

Rickett notes projects that might normally take years, being accelerated into the span of weeks. This approach of rapid prototyping and tweaking ‘in-market’, he says he hopes is here to stay. 

For main street businesses, the term agility takes on a different meaning. It refers to tackling digital transformation and adapting to commerce in the new normal. Federal funding programs across North America such as the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) or the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) have helped businesses keep their lights on. However, as the pandemic endures, a viable long-term solution for many businesses remains unclear. At the least, a digital presence is necessary to survive in a post-COVID world, much more so than before. As people adapt their shopping habits, businesses too must adapt and make it accessible for people to shop local. 

2. Engage the community and collaborate wherever possible

The vulnerability of main street businesses has underscored their central role at the heart and soul of cities. For many, the idea of losing these communities has been a great motivator. 

To launch a new program amid austerity and uncertainty, the ability to tap into partnerships and external assistance can be a great place to start. For ShopHERE, Rickett’s team reached out to the Toronto tech community calling for volunteer web developers. Over 1,000 developers responded eager to help, underscoring the sentiment that people want to do their part.

Further illustrating this point, ShopHERE is supported by numerous community and corporate partners, including Shopify, Google, Mastercard, Microsoft, Facebook, Ritual, and more. These partners, in turn, share aggregate program-related data back to the City to help them track the initiative. Rickett acknowledges this willingness from the public and private sector to support main streets in the program’s success.

Along the same sentiment, bigger cities with more budget flexibility can help do the heavy lifting for smaller communities. Digital Main Street as a resource is now available across Canada and will soon be available to small businesses internationally.

3. When the right data isn’t available, ground truth goes a long way

Gathering the right data points to justify a new program can be challenging. The right data might not be openly available, affordable, or in an appropriate format to glean valuable insights from. In the spirit of adapting and expediting support to main streets, this can be a blocker, to say the least.

In these circumstances, asking and working closely with local businesses can provide valuable anecdotal evidence that can be used for benchmarking and building a business case upon. COVID-19 has called for the readjustment of metrics and a reconsideration of how to measure success.

For more information

UrbanLogiq is a software platform that integrates and visualizes data to provide fast insights for governments. We work with agencies across North America to streamline access to main street metrics and help support business areas. For more information about us, or to hear about upcoming webinars, visit us at www.urbanlogiq.com.