Artisan haven Merrickville-Wolford teaches old businesses new digital skills
With its swath of heritage buildings and picturesque location alongside the Rideau river lock system, it’s no surprise Merrickville-Wolford has become a haven for artists and craftspeople. The small community and neighbouring villages of just over 3,000 people are home to more than 30 artisans, an element of intrigue that draws throngs of tourists every year. It’s also drawn a throng of entrepreneurial retirees looking to get out of the big city and slow down.
“Merrickville-Wolford has an awful lot of retirees that have moved out here from places like Ottawa,” says Cheri Kemp-Long, a volunteer at the Merrickville Chamber of Commerce. “(They) don't necessarily want to sit and twiddle their thumbs, so they’re busy doing things and a lot of that may mean turning that hobby into a small business.”
The influx of tourists keeps those retirees-turned-entrepreneurs busy. But in a time when it’s harder for businesses to be found without some sort of online presence, some of these older business owners are in need of a little support. That’s why Kemp-Long and her husband Bob Long volunteered to lead regional efforts for the roll-out of Digitial Main Street. The program combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities.
Using the $10,000 Digital Service Squad grant, they hired a local tech-savvy entrepreneur to start working with interested local businesses.
“She managed to hit all 52 of our 55 (businesses) right away to give them an overview – not necessarily get any work done with signups or anything like that – but communicating with them,” says Kemp-Long. 14 submitted an application for the Digital Transformation Grant, a $2500 influx of capital to help business owners with their online plan.
Given the demographics, the focus was the basics – things like setting up websites and social media channels, making sure their email was up and running and ensuring their Google My Business had the right hours and photos associated with that business.
Kemp-Long says she was surprised when they started going out to gauge the community’s overall digital literacy. “Some people had more of a start than we realized,” she says. A handful of businesses had hired teams to create their website or social media but had lost the passwords or never really gotten around to maintaining the websites. Some were just left in the dark by the consultants they initially hired who had “walked away and left them with no access.”
“People got into it… they recognized there was a need,” says Kemp-Long. And the Digital Service Squad grant allowed them to offer support that the Chamber of Commerce otherwise wouldn’t have the resources for. Kemp-Long says it’s been vital, especially with the older demographics in the village. “We don't have a lot of younger people working for those older business owners… so there’s not really people there to say, okay, well, you’re younger, you look after the Facebook page for me because you understand that better,” she says. “Maybe in a bigger town where you've got more people, more kids that are looking for after school work, there would be that ability to support the businesses… but we don't have that back-up.”
Written by Andrew Seale
Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Microsoft, Facebook, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, and Yellow Pages.
A $42.5-million investment from FedDev Ontario and an additional $7.45 million from the Government of Ontario brought together the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Communitech, Invest Ottawa and the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association to expand the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital as a response to the impacts of COVID-19.