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St. Albert COVID-19 task force adds new member, pressure for faster support rollout

Businesses have no time to wait for supports, task force member says
St. Albert's COVID-19 Recovery Task Force welcomed Timothy Buckland to the team during the first meeting of 2021. SCREENSHOT

St. Albert's COVID-19 Recovery Task Force welcomed a new member to the team during its first meeting of the new year, and the pressure is on for concrete action to support the city's struggling business community during the pandemic.

Timothy Buckland, who works with Alberta Health Services' research and innovation branch, replaces CEO of Canadian Retail Solutions Dan Holman on the task force. With an expertise in oncology and cancer, Buckland said he also works on new innovations related to COVID-19, bringing medical expertise to the city's recovery efforts.

"If there's anything that needs health evidence, that is really my bread and butter, especially related to COVID-19," Buckland told the task force on Jan. 20. "For masking advocacy, vaccines or any of that, that's really what I do for a living."

With Holman leaving the vice-chair position vacant, Jennifer McCurdy, former president and CEO of the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce, will be filling that role this year.  

Originally, the task force was scheduled to have a four-hour strategic planning discussion to kick off the new year, but opted instead to plan for meetings in the future with the Chamber, council committees and other organizations in the city for feedback on the interim report it presented to city council last month.

"The purpose of that would be to share the interim report, and then solicit feedback and identify gaps," explained Trevor Duley, city government relations manager.

To what extent the group would reach out to the public for feedback and involve residents in the strategic plan was one discussion the group took home with them for review. The next meeting is set for Feb. 3.

The task force is a 10-member committee started in June last year. It includes a cross-section of municipal, business and community leaders who are tasked with making recommendations to council on the city's recovery efforts. 

For the last seven months, the task force's work has primarily identified and prioritized recommendations for recovery, but there isn't yet a plan on how to implement them.

Last year, council provided $2.4 million to cover costs for the city’s COVID-19 response. These funds are not used to support the task force, which has no budget, according to the city.

'Can we move it a little faster?'

With a few minutes left in the meeting, the task force had a brief discussion around what recovery grant programs exist in other municipalities in the Edmonton region. 

For example, the City of Leduc recently partnered with the Leduc & Wetaskiwin Regional Chamber of Commerce to offer a COVID Recovery Grant program to provide additional assistance to small eligible businesses within city limits.

The grant is for business owners to fund up to five hours of professional services, like hiring an accountant or bookkeeper, that would help them understand, collect information and submit applications to upper levels of government for funding. 

On this topic, McCurdy said she felt "a little frustrated" with the task force's progress rolling out supports for businesses because "they need that money now."

"It's great to have these meetings, and then we're going to do a strategic plan and we're going to discuss. But by the time we decide and then go to council for the funds, we're going to be way down the road," she said. 

One in six (181,000) Canadian small business owners are seriously contemplating permanently closing because of COVID-19, putting more than 2.4 million jobs at risk, according to the latest report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

Based on the survey results, more Alberta businesses are considering pulling the plug compared to other provinces, with one in five actively considering bankruptcy or winding down their business. 

Leduc's initiative in particular is helping connect business owners to expert advice when it comes to navigating mounting financial issues, whether it's how to file their taxes this year or how to access government grants to survive, she said. Giving businesses a $1,000 grant or five hours with an accountant "is going to help some business owners sleep."

"'I'm just feeling a little frustrated – businesses need help now. And it's right for us to be planning, but you know, can we move it a little faster if we're going to get some help for them?"

Mayor Cathy Heron said the task force might not have to wait for strategic planning to start a conversation around business incentives, mentioning it could be put on the next Feb. 3 agenda. 

Brittany Gervais

About the Author: Brittany Gervais

Brittany Gervais joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2020. She writes about city hall, business, general news and features.
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