As of March 2021, about 128 small business loans (businesses with five or fewer employees) had been approved by Muskoka Futures for an estimated total of $4.1 million to help small businesses survive during COVID and help retain jobs in the area.
Most of the approved applications, 45, came from Bracebridge; 42 applications were approved from Huntsville; 15 from Gravenhurst; 16 from Muskoka Lakes; seven from Lake of Bays, and three from Georgian Bay.
According to a report compiled by Muskoka Futures, it is estimated that a total of 482 jobs were retained as a result of the loans.
The loans are part of an economic recovery initiative aimed at providing financial support to small businesses which would otherwise not qualify for other funding. The fund is administered by Muskoka Futures in partnership with FedNor and the District of Muskoka which has contributed $750,000 towards the initiative, money which it will get back with no interest.
It has also created the Muskoka Economic Recovery Task Force (MERT) comprised of representatives from Muskoka’s tourism sector, chambers of commerce, and municipal economic development representatives, as well as seasonal residents. The task force has been meeting once a month since the middle of 2020.
One of the biggest challenges identified as facing businesses during COVID involves connectivity, explained task force coordinator Wade Matthews. “We became so reliant on access to good internet just to work and to live through COVID that that emerged as the number one economic development issue in Muskoka.”
In response, a consultant has been hired to put together a plan to deliver broadband to all of Muskoka. That plan, which will be presented to District council later this year, is expected to put together a strategy for implementation.
“They’ll have a recommendation about how we do it because there’s obviously a number of options that are available. I don’t want to pre-empt the findings of the report but there’s different ways to fund getting reliable internet access to people in Muskoka,” said Matthews. “What’s really important with the funding that’s coming from the provincial and federal government right now is that they want to see that you have an actionable plan in place already to get the funding so it’s really important that we position ourselves in order to best be able to access that funding.” That also means working with internet service providers and identifying where the gaps are, he added.
A Muskoka-wide business survey conducted by each of Muskoka’s six municipalities on 544 businesses found that almost 50 per cent reported revenue decreases due to COVID while about 40 per cent reported an increase in revenues depending on the sector in which they were in. Another 25 per cent reported job loss due to COVID while many also reported recruitment and retention challenges, explained Matthews.
“It just gives you an idea that you know we didn’t all suffer equally because of COVID and not all businesses suffered equally because of COVID-19 too, despite that fact that, obviously, almost the majority suffered,” said Matthews.
A report regarding the findings of the business survey is expected to be presented to council at a later date.
Matthews said the aim of the task force is not only to tackle common economic development challenges in Muskoka but to also to build relationships “because you don’t want to be acting in silos. You want to know what’s going on in different municipalities and you want the chambers of commerce to be involved and to know what’s going on… so this is a really good way for us to connect with community organizations but also area municipalities to make sure that we’re talking in the same space about common challenges.”
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