BUSINESS BUZZ: Study to look at local economic impact of COVID-19

Darren Davidson returns with a look at the local business scene

Badge of honour: Gericks Cycle and Ski’s Charles Arnold makes the message clear for retail and service providers back on the job. The badges were provided to bike dealers around the nation who sell Norco/Live To Play products. Photo: Darren Davidson

By Darren Davidson

Work.

It’s something so many of us require to bolster a need everyone shares — to have purpose in this life.

So, with the nation’s unemployment rate at 13.7 per cent last month, with three million Canadians with no jobs, news that some employers are having a difficult time getting help seems crazy. But it’s happening.

There have in fact been 289,600 jobs re-created as of last month, as COVID public health restrictions eased up and some businesses are slowly re-opening.

But, many employers in the hospitality, accommodation, retail and even construction sectors are finding that their efforts to hire folks back are being met with “no thanks.”

Turns out many who could be working are instead opting to take cuts in household income, staying put, and collecting their Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or other COVID assistance payments.

“That obviously wasn’t the intent of the program,” says Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson.

The trend, Thomson says, has been evident for the past six to eight weeks, according to feedback he’s getting from regular conversations through BC Chamber roundtables.

And that trend could make for a painful autumn when wage subsidy programs and CERB begin to expire. The Nelson and area unemployment rate was 5.8 per cent in mid-March. It’s now around 12 per cent, a bit lower than the province.

Estimates suggest as many as 2,300 workers in the Nelson area have been laid off or had hours cut due to COVID-related closures, but those numbers are rough. The Nelson and District Credit Union has taken the lead on sleuthing out more precise unemployment numbers, labour shortages and local consumer traffic tracking.

The NDCU has hired veteran economist Mike Stolte to get hard numbers and analysis of the local labour landscape.

“We want to garner a better picture of what’s going on locally,” says NDCU CEO Tom Murray. “We really want to find numbers that can give us an idea of how good or bad things really are.”

Murray says the setback for hospitality, tourism and retail businesses is quite apparent, but progress or lack thereof in other sectors isn’t as clear.

“A lot of mom and pop shops have gone back to being run by Mom and Pop. But there’s no real sense yet of who’s coming back to work, and who’s not.”

Murray says the study will help discern what the true local economic impact of COVID has been, and help with the possible launch of an on-line dashboard that can track customer traffic and visitation.

Stolte is expected to have his findings collected within the next two to three weeks. The figures will be shared with local business and government. This by the way, is not entirely uncharted water for Canada. The nation’s unemployment rate was 13.1 per cent in December 1982.

•••

On to some good news.

One sector that has thrived through the COVID calamity: Building and renovations. Do-It-Yourselfers are out in record numbers, and building centres are reporting significant increases in business year to date. Congrats to the trio of suppliers who’ve made a home at the corner of Baker and Kootenay: Niki Wood and her business Samurai Hardwood, Vicki Hanneson and John at Sunset Custom Blinds and Spas, and Len Maida of Maida Windows and Doors.

•••

A quick shout out to all the commercial landlords in town who are giving their tenants a break on rent for the past few months, and a few more to come. Some big building owners have not been so kind. In fact, some have levied increases. Sure, landlords have their own debts to manage, but one has to wonder what’s to gain by bleeding a struggling tenant during hard times, when there are likely few businesses out there in a financial position to take over spaces vacated by shops that have gone under.

•••

If you’ve got an opinion one way or another on the proposed Zincton Mountain Village near New Denver, Monday is the provincial government’s deadline for public feedback. The year-round resort would be built on 4,500 hectares of land, and cater to skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers, offering a distinctly backcountry experience.

•••

Cam Whitehead has parted ways with the Kootenay Association of Science and Technology (KAST). He’d been at the helm for a little over a year and a half and did a great job seeking out funding sources and building KAST’s momentum.

Whitehead was hired by Community Futures to spearhead the Nelson Innovation Centre before moving on to KAST. Since then he secured $2 million in funding for the MIDAS Lab in Trail and the Nelson Innovation Centre, now a beautiful venue in the bustling Railway neighbourhood.

“I’m really proud of what KAST accomplished while I was there,” says Whitehead, a husband and father of two youngsters. He notes that MIDAS and its metal 3D printer, now operated by Selkirk College, are the first of their kind in the world. “I feel KAST is in really good shape,” he adds.

Watch for more noteworthy moves from both Whitehead and the association in the months ahead.

Operations manager Kailyn Skuban will take over as interim executive director at KAST, which will present an update to city council June 22.

•••

Things have been smokin’ busy for Kootenay Filter Inc.

Co-owners Marco Gerhardt, Rick Arnett and sales and marketing man Kyle Downey are part of the company’s 12-member staff, most of whom were employed previously by Can-Filter, which built a great new venue on the North Shore with the help of Red Dog Carpentry a few years back, before Can-Filter was sold to a subsidiary of Scott’s Miracle-Gro, in late 2017. The multi-national company had its sights set on the cannabis hydroponics business.

But in the summer of 2018, Can-Filters’ 27 employees were let go. The North Shore business, which opened in 1989, sadly, closed.

The outgoing crew rallied though. They started a new business under the name Kootenay Filters Inc. And found a new home, on Highway 3, on the Grohman Mini Storage property.

“We were able to re-employ some of the old crew,” says Gerhardt, “and we’re currently expanding and hoping to have more employees back soon.”

Downey says KFI has dodged the COVID crisis for the most part.

“COVID has only put a delay in the logistics of receiving materials we need to make our filters that come in from abroad.”

KFI’s carbon filters and fans are used primarily in the cannabis industry, and with cannabis being an essential service, Downey says there’s still a demand for KFI product. The filters, available at Ellison’s in Nelson, are also great for gyms, nursing homes, hospitals, dental offices and even your kitchen.

What’s the future hold for the good-as-new Can-Filters building? According to the property’s owners, a cannabis production operation and licensed production facility is being proposed. Watch for more info on that pending start up in a Business Buzz to come.

That’s it for this week. Keep on keeping on out there.

If you have tips for the Business Buzz, send them to editor@nelsonstar.com

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