Digital Main Street piques interest in cities like Kitchener-Waterloo, Port Hope, Hamilton, and Thunder Bay

by Digital Main Street   |   April 02, 2019   |   Share this:  

As the Digital Main Street initiative proliferates through Ontario, economic centres like Kitchener-Waterloo, Port Hope, Hamilton, and Thunder Bay are re-energizing local main street businesses with digital tools.



Sara Bingham has gotten used to skepticism when she walks through the door of main street businesses in Kitchener, that certain look asking: if you’re not buying, what’re you selling?

“A lot of main street businesses are jaded and tired because there's been downtime, there's been construction… they're wary of anyone walking in that doesn't look like a customer,” says Bingham, entrepreneurship and technology advisor at the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre and the driving force for the region’s Digital Main Street roll out. “When you're a main street business you get approached by so many people.”

Showing up armed with a 360-degree camera for shooting Google My Business photos probably doesn’t help her image. “I kind of am selling something… but what I'm selling them has no cost and there are great benefits to it.” 

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Almost any Main Street small business can benefit from a high-definition google virtual tour – especially restaurants, banks, medical offices, hotels, corporate offices, storefront businesses, retail businesses, manufacturing facilities, and any business with a showroom. In order to get a Google 360 virtual tour you must go through a Google trusted photographer or agency. Our Digital Service Squad can offer this service free of charge to small businesses within any of the BIA areas that we are currently working in across Ontario. You can reach out to your local BIA Or economic development office to find out if we are currently in your area or may be in the near future. If you’re not within one of these areas, consider sharing the ‘Digital Service Squad Grant Program’ with a local representative, or applying for the ‘Digital Transformation Grant Program’ yourself. Google 360 is one of the many key elements to consider as part of a successful digital transformation strategy. Get your small business on the map! 🗺 📍 Grant info ➡️ Additional online resources ➡️ Helping Main Street Go Digital ➡ Free Digital Assessment ➡ Digital Service Squad ➡ DMS Academy ➡DMS Lab ➡ #digitalminstreet #smallbusiness #yyz #toronto #ontario #🇨🇦 #digitaltransformation #digitalmarketing #community #mainstreet #shoplocal #shopsmall #supportlocal #training #grants #news #tools #resources #contests #events #instagood #yyz #toronto @explorebloorannex

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Bingham, who owned her a business for 15 years, has become an evangelist for main street’s digital transformation, connecting local entrepreneurs with the Digital Main Street Assessment tool – an online survey for businesses – and services including digital training, support and grants to help them adopt technology to enhance their business.

Since Summer 2017, hundreds of businesses in Kitchener-Waterloo have taken the survey, with a growing number applying for grants and completing the training videos. “We've taken over 14,000 photos for local businesses,” she says. “Together those photos, whether they're a 360-degree photograph or just a regular photograph of the interior of the store, have had over 853,000 views.”


The Digital Main Street initiative, which was born in 2016 out of conversations between Toronto BIAs and local entrepreneurs has since rolled out across the province. Cities including Kitchener-Waterloo, Port Hope, Hamilton, and Thunder Bay, have spearheaded the push as early adopters.


Elizabeth Edwards, business outreach coordinator for Port Hope points out that the challenges facing businesses vary as much as the diverse patchwork of businesses making up main street.

“Some of our business owners that are most familiar with the brick and mortar style of a retail or service are challenged with the concept of online presence through social media and a regularly maintained website,” she says. Others have a firm grip on social media and their website but are looking to delve into online advertising, introducing video content, or digitizing aspects like scheduling and reservations.

“It is intimidating for some business owners and as a strong supporter of our local businesses, we want to be able to ease some of the burden by (providing) guidance to them based on their needs, wants, and vision for their business,” says Edwards. “DMS will allow us to do this effectively and in a community-centric way.”



In Hamilton, where there’s no shortage of digital-savvy entrepreneurs, finding a way to sift through the sheer volume of tools available is a challenge in itself.

“Many business owners struggle with what digital technologies to use, (so they) sign-up for everything and become overwhelmed,” says Jodi Laking, business development officer for Hamilton’s Small Business Enterprise Centre. With DMS, her team can, “help business owners identify best practices and appropriate spending on new technology.”

As part of the program’s expansion, the Province of Ontario has partnered with the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association to set up a Digital Service Squad Grant. The $10,000 grant allows qualifying municipal and business associations to set up teams capable of providing one-on-one assistance to small businesses.

“Specifically, with the Squad Grant – we find that with a smaller city, like Thunder Bay, we tend to be almost a ‘village’ mentality – that although resources are out there, it still takes a personal connection to reach out to them individually to help them take advantage of opportunities,” explains Ryan Moore, development officer at Thunder Bay’s Community Economic Development Commission. “A squad individual will be crucial to helping assure that they do take advantages of the programs available to them.”

Bingham points out that business owners want to be online, they want to use digital tools, they’re just juggling a never-ending array of other elements to keep their business running smoothly.

“When you're an entrepreneur, you're working 24/7… it’s a balancing act,” she says. “We're just there to help them.”

By Andrew Seale

⚡️ Digital Service Squads provide one-on-one assistance to small main street businesses in communities across Ontario. Squads will provide training, consulting and advisory services. There are 300 DSS Grants available until March 2020. Apply Now ➡️

About Digital Main Street

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, Yellow Pages and Lightspeed.

This case study was completed during a prior expansion of DMS in partnership with the Province of Ontario and Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

In June 2020, 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.

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