B.C. jobs minister resists calls to extend small business grant deadline

The bulk of the B.C.’s small- and medium-business recovery grant continues to sit untouched five months into the program but the NDP government’s jobs minister resisted calls from the business community to extend the program’s March 31 deadline.

Speaking to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade during a virtual meeting on Tuesday, Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation Minister Ravi Kahlon said he’s confident changes to the grant program in December have made it easier for more businesses to apply. However, he did not give a direct answer to a question from Board of Trade CEO Bridgitte Anderson about whether the end-of-March deadline would be extended.

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“We’re going to monitor over the next couples of weeks and we’ll have a better sense of where the program is going, what kind of uptake we’re having … and if we need to retool or go in a different direction we’ll do that,” Kahlon said.

The business recovery grant, launched in October, provides non-repayable grants of up to $30,000 for struggling businesses or up to $45,000 for tourism operators. But many businesses are struggling to qualify. As of Feb. 4, only $12 million of the $300 million earmarked had been delivered to business owners. A report released in January by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade showed that only 13 per cent of their 5,000 members had applied for the small- and medium-business recovery grant program.

“At the end of the day, the money is not going to be burned, the money’s not going to be thrown away,” Kahlon said Tuesday. “It’s going to go toward supporting small businesses.”

B.C. Liberal jobs critic Todd Stone has called the grant program a disaster and wants the province to expand eligibility criteria so that more businesses can receive desperately needed funding.

In December, two months after the program was started, Kahlon announced changes to streamline the application process and lower the threshold for losses that businesses must show. To qualify, businesses must have been in operation for 18 months, a reduction from three years. Businesses must prove a 30-per-cent drop in revenue since May compared to the previous year, down from a 50-per-cent threshold.

Since those changes, more than 6,000 businesses have applied, 60 per cent of which are in the tourism sector, Kahlon said.

Kahlon said he’s aware of recent surveys that show two-thirds of B.C. businesses are relying on government supports to make it through the economic challenges created by the pandemic.

“So the main focus for me right now is how do we make sure the programs we’re rolling out hit the mark, that they’re inclusive, that they’re streamlined,” he said.

On Feb. 4, Kahlon announced a $12-million grant program to help small and medium businesses sell products online. At least 1,200 businesses applied for the Launch Online grant program within the first week, Kahlon said. The grant provides B.C. businesses up to $7,500 to create an online store or partner with an e-commerce company to expand their products into new markets.

Kahlon told the board of trade the province will soon be launching a $500-million strategic investment fund to provide capital to B.C. companies, particularly those in the sustainability sector. A portion of the investment dollars will be earmarked for Indigenous-led businesses “to ensure Indigenous communities starting innovative projects have access to capital,” he said.

Kahlon released few details about the investment fund but said the program is modelled on government-led programs in Ireland and Denmark.

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