Haldimand County businesses overcome digital divide with transformation
Haldimand County is a community of communities, a unique, rural patchwork of main street towns spread out across 1,300-square-kilometres. It’s a vast area, but the threat facing small businesses across these communities remains the same: the digital divide.
The growing gap between businesses that have leaned into the world of digital presence and identity and the businesses that have yet to take part was accelerated this past year by the pandemic, says Lidy Romanuk. It’s never been more clear that digital transformation is not just necessary but critical for businesses.
“Online and e-commerce is the way that many businesses have had to go due to COVID-19,” says Romanuk. “But I think, in many ways, these are things that our businesses always wanted to do (but) never really got around to doing so the pandemic’s forcing the hand and saying: ‘if you want to still be around, you need to do this.’ ”
And they have. This past year, Haldimand County teamed up with the Grand Erie Business Centre to roll-out Digital Main Street across the region. The program combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association alongside partners like Google to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities and plan for the digital future. The county received a grant in order to set up a Digital Service Squad and hire a team of four to connect with businesses across the region, working with them one-to-one to develop their digital presence.
“We focused on Caledonia, Dunnville, Cayuga, Hagersville, Jarvis and Selkirk as our key areas,” says Romanuk. “(We’ve) been really trying to let the business as many businesses know about the grant opportunity and we're seeing some pretty good results.”
As of mid-December, 82 of the businesses the Digital Service Squad had worked with had applied for the $2,500 Digital Transformation grant. There were 28 grants already approved.
“We’re anxious to see what that final outcome is next week around this time,” says Romanuk. “We're really hoping to see that $100,000 mark (of grants awarded).”
Businesses in Haldimand took a particular interest in enhanced point-of-sale systems and online ordering (“Especially restaurants,” says Romanuk) – a reaction likely to the changing regulations surrounding COVID-19. Social media was also a key interest for participants in the program. Romanuk says despite the diversity of businesses, there seemed to be a common thread, a lot of businesses had never really had the time to even look into digital transformation even though they understood it as something they needed.
“There are businesses that say, you know, I've always wanted to learn about Instagram or whatever it is but I just never get around to it,” says Romanuk. “So somebody sitting one-on-one and just showing (them) how to get started and how to start using the various tools within that social media application has been extremely valuable.”
From the county’s perspective, Romanuk says they’ve been looking for ways to support their members with digital transformation well before the pandemic hit, Digital Main Street just seemed to show up at the right time. “It's not often that we have these tools and the time to implement (them) with our businesses,” says Romanuk. “(So) this has just given us that added toolbox for businesses.”
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, Yellow Pages and Lightspeed.
A $42.5-million investment from FedDev 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 in Southern Ontario.