Simone Kearney was stuck with more than $100,000 worth of inventory when word came in March that the cruise-ship season wasn’t going to happen this year.
It was a severe blow for the family-owned business, which has been selling souvenirs, household items, books and fashion accessories to cruise-ship passengers and crew for more than 35 years at Ogden Point’s Beaver Gift Shop.
Other than a few James Bay residents who knew the port-of-call shop was a bit of a secret gem for handy items, Kearney said nobody else was going to find them as the cruise terminal turned into a ghost town amid the pandemic.
So this week, she opened the Beaver as a pop-up shop at Mayfair Centre, hoping locals can help a long-time business hang on until the border reopens and ships sail again.
Kearney, who is maintaining the Odgen Point store as a warehouse, was also one of 33 tenants of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority that received a much-needed lifeline this week through the federal government’s commercial rent assistance program.
The funding for all five of the harbour authority’s major properties is worth about $358,000 over a five-month period. The majority of the recipients are small, family-owned businesses, said Ian Robertson, chief executive of the harbour authority and landlord for the businesses on a range of properties from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Steamship Terminal.
The federal program allows the non-profit harbour authority to reduce rent by 75% for the months of April to August. It covers 50% of the rent, with the tenant paying 25%, and the property owner forgiving 25%.
“To say the impact of the pandemic has been significant is an understatement,” said Robertson. “The support provided by the government of Canada is much-needed for our customers to remain solvent into the coming fall and winter months.”
To assist commercial customers, harbour authority staff also instituted a rent-deferral program for all commercial customers with signed agreements for April, May, and June 2020 until June 2021.
For Kearney, it was a critical lifeline to keep her business afloat. “It was something nobody expected,” said Kearney. “We put so much of ourselves into our business and community. We really appreciate any support that comes back.”
Companies such as Eagle Wing Tours at Fisherman’s Wharf are operating with only a fraction of their usual customers, taking locals and people from other parts of Canada on whale-watching tours, but missing the bulk of their business from the U.S.
Nathan Bird, manager of Eagle Wing Tours, said the rent relief is welcome. “In a year filled with bad news, Eagle Wing is pleased to receive this good news. The relief supplied to us through this program and GVHA’s efforts to secure the savings for its customers will assist us in navigating a terrible year and set us up for recovery in the upcoming years.”
Michael Helm, who operates the Breakwater Bistro at Ogden Point, is working hard to to boost his numbers in a difficult business environment. He’s been bringing in live music under strict protocols, serving ice cream made in-house and expanding his footprint with a large outdoor patio.
But business is still only about 45% of what it was last year.
He said federal programs to offset wages and rent have been essential to survival. “Hopefully we can put away some money for the winter,” said Helm, “because it’s going to be tough in October, November and December.”
Peter Ord of the Bateman Foundation Gallery of Nature in the Steamship Terminal on the Inner Harbour said it’s been a tough summer, with visitors down by about 85 per cent from last year. He said most people are spending time outdoors, so the rent relief to cover most of the spring and summer “helps our bottom line.”
He said the Bateman gallery has continued to plan for a series of new exhibits in the fall and winter, when people will likely return to galleries. On Oct. 2, a grizzly bear exhibit will feature art, sculptures, photography and performance art honouring the big bears. That will be followed by an exhibit from February to June by celebrated American wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen.
The harbour authority had projected 300 cruise-ship calls and more than 770,000 passengers throughout the seven-month season before Transport Canada suspended cruise-ship visits. That put the harbour authority in a difficult spot — losing 70% of its revenues, or more than $12 million, for the fiscal year.
To make up for the shortfall, the non-profit has laid off staff, cut expenses by half and deferred major capital projects.
The harbour authority, which oversees four marinas on the Inner Harbour, also said it has put a freeze on its moorage rates for local boaters. Rates fluctuate by season and linear feet, but haven’t changed since spring.