Manitouwadge’s main street stretches beyond the community with e-commerce
Manitouwadge’s main street doesn’t see a lot of tourists. “Tourism is growing,” says Florence MacLean, economic development officer for the township tucked halfway between Sault Ste. Marie and Thundery Bay in Northern Ontario. “But it isn’t our forté at the moment.”
The community is 30 minutes off the nearest highway and while there are some backroads leading towards Highway 11 to the north, MacLean says the town is “pretty much the end of the road.” Main street businesses are predominantly supported by locals and visitors from nearby First Nation communities.
That is until Digital Main Street came along. 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.
Since leveraging the resources, says MacLean, some Manitouwadge businesses are seeing their customer-base expand far beyond their little pocket of Northern Ontario. She points to Bitz & Bobz, a gift shop and cafe, that transitioned from a home-based business to a physical location during COVID-19.
Bitz & Bobz worked with a Digital Service Squad member to improve their online presence with a website, Facebook and Instagram, expanding their reach well beyond the community. “They have seen an increase in the number of sales through mail delivery,” says MacLean. “That's not typically something that the businesses in our community catered to.”
MacLean says the program reached out to 25 businesses, working with many of them to help raise their digital literacy. For some that meant getting them up and running on social media and others that meant helping them apply for the $2,500 Digital Transformation Grant.
MacLean admits that it was a slow roll-out, given that businesses were still grappling with the rapidly evolving situation surrounding COVID-19. “There was just so much anxiety about what was going on and people couldn’t really wrap their head around what the programs were and how they would benefit the business,” she says. “Once things reopened, businesses had a better sense of how (they) could do better electronically or have a better presence online… and we started to see a bit of an uptick.”
MacLean says there was also significant interest in Google My Business. “People are really interested in how to have a better presence,” she says. The Digital Main Street assessment turned out to be an eye-opening experience for a lot of business. “I think there was some realization about how poor their online presence was and the steps that they could take to increase that.”
Manitouwadge’s Digital Main Street program ended in November 2020 but MacLean says she still sees the value of the resources for main street businesses. She says she’s been a constant champion, even accompanying the bylaw officer responsible for ensuring businesses are following COVID-19 protocols. “It’s just about reinforcing the support to small business… that we’re here to help,” says MacLean. “It isn't all about following the rules it's about all (working) together.”
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 $7.45 million from the Province 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 in Northern Ontario.