Hamilton brings digital tools to main street businesses
Hamilton is a big city. And across that city which stretches from Ancaster to Waterdown, Dundas to Stoney Creek, are 13 BIAs, each representing a unique neighbourhood with legacy businesses and new entrepreneurs side-by-side. But there’s a common underlying goal, thriving and evolving in this increasingly digital age.
It’s with that common goal in mind that the Hamilton Business Centre and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce teamed up to roll out the Digital Main Street program across the city’s BIAs this past January.
“Having run other grant programs in the past, we've learned a lot (about) what works in the city of Hamilton and what people care about,” explains Jodi Laking, Business Development Officer at the Hamilton Business Centre. “We intentionally try very hard not to recreate the wheel… we have a pretty good pulse on how our businesses operate.”
The Digital Main Street program leverages grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association to help main street businesses across Ontario strengthen their digital and online capabilities. Laking and her team’s mission over the past year has been to not only engage businesses across this geographic sprawl but somehow create an experience that will resonate despite the varying degrees of digital literacy.
“We have quite a few business owners who've been in operation for 20 or 30 years that don't have a computer on-site,” she says. “They are still using a manual receipt process and that works for them.”
Hamilton’s Digital Service Squad isn’t looking to change that.
“Our goal isn't to push people into doing things just to say that they now have technology (or) wasting their money just for the sake of getting a device that they don't plan on using in the future,” explains Laking. “It's about making sure that their goal gets accomplished.”
For some, it starts small like getting their Google My Business account set up or establishing a simple website to get them online. “If they need a more simplistic platform then we help them understand why certain options might be more beneficial for them,” says Laking.
For others, it’s helping to sift through and make sense of the vast array of tools available for building a digital presence.
“Our goal was making sure that the grant was really tailored to what each business owner really wanted, what they could afford and the fact that they could not only implement it now but continue applying it as well,” says Laking.
Since kicking off Digital Main Street, Laking estimates they’ve had around 700 touchpoints between talking to people, either in their stores or helping people via email or phone to review their applications, give feedback and meeting with them to talk about what technologies would best fit. They also run events and seminars that augment the Digital Main Street training.
“We have quite good engagement,” says Laking. And they’re on the cusp of phase two, which Laking says will focus on visiting some of the businesses that said they were interested but didn’t end up applying as well as other businesses they weren’t able to connect with.
“The one trend in Hamilton is people either assume that they qualify for everything or they assume that they don't qualify even before they review the eligibility,” she says. “So it's breaking down some of those barriers to the best of our ability and motivating people to get through their training videos.”
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, 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.