Business owners hope that a $ 1 million federal grant to revitalize Little Jamaica will help raise the profile of Toronto’s historic community.
The owners said on Sunday the money was coming at the right time, as black-owned businesses along Eglinton Avenue West, mostly located between Marlee Avenue and Oakwood Avenue, have struggled since 2011 to stay open.
First, businesses in the area had to contend with the construction of Eglinton Crosstown. More recently, they have had to deal with restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 50 black-owned businesses in Little Jamaica have closed in the past five years.
“It was a challenge, but I resisted. I held on,” said Sheryl Bryan Phillips, owner of Judy’s Island Grill, a small restaurant that serves authentic Caribbean food at 1720 Eglinton Ave. W.
“2018, I think, was our best year. After that, the pandemic struck. Oh, I’m telling you, it was decreasing. Things have improved since we reopened. “
The restaurant, which has been in business for almost seven years, presents itself as “bringing you the taste of the island”. On its walls are pictures of Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer, songwriter and musician who died in 1981, and retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
Bryan Phillips said she is starting to see familiar faces again, with more foot traffic, but what the community needs are customers from outside the area.
“Once my sister, who helped me start this business, said, ‘Why don’t you file for bankruptcy? I don’t know why you always go there ”. But something inside me was pushing me to continue. This is what I am destined for. It’s my passion, ”said Bryan Phillips.
The grant will fund programs
The grant, from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, enabled the opening of a satellite office of the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), a non-profit charitable organization formed in 1983 which serves to promote equity and opportunity for black communities in business, employment, education and economic development.
Although the grant was announced earlier this year, the BBPA office opened last week at 1621 Eglinton Ave. W.
Frances Delsol, executive director of BBPA, said the grant will be used to fund programs for black-owned and operated businesses in Little Jamaica. This will let Toronto know that Little Jamaica is open for business, she said.
She said the construction of the light rail and the pandemic had taken a heavy toll on businesses in the region. Earlier this year, the BBPA gave $ 150,000 in grants to 33 businesses in Little Jamaica to help them pay rent or utilities. The hope is that the construction of the LRT will be completed soon, she said.
The area was home to many people of Jamaican and Caribbean descent who moved to Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s. It was once home to hundreds of black-owned businesses. Five years ago, there were over 110 black-owned businesses. Today there are around 45 in the region.
“We have seen a degradation of the community in terms of the number of businesses there. And we are here to solidify those that are left and try to bring in more so that the culture of what Little Jamaica is all about. continues to stay, ”Delsol said. .
The area has “historical significance”, according to the head of the community
Delsol said the community appreciates federal money.
“We’re going to come up with programs that will help them not only thrive, but also be sustainable in the long run,” she said.
“This community has a culture. If we can’t support the businesses that are here, then we’re going to have an infusion of new businesses. We’re going to have a different kind of culture in this area.
“It is important that not only Toronto, but Canada understands the historical significance of this region. It was built on the backs of people from Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. If we don’t encourage the sustainability of this crop, it’s going to die. And it’s a part of us that we can’t let die. We must help maintain it. “
Stuart Brown, owner of Reggae Cafe, a Jamaican seafood restaurant and large event space at 1653 Eglinton Ave. W., said he believes the $ 1 million grant should be used primarily to help businesses in Little Jamaica get back to business. It should also be used for marketing, incentives for returning customers and efforts to clean up the area, he said.
The company has been in operation since 2013 and Brown took it over from his father in 2018. Its second location in Sarnia, Ontario currently supports the one in Toronto.
Brown said he lost revenue during the LRT’s construction period because customers struggled to find parking. He said the grant will help businesses in the region, but construction of the light rail transit must end to allow customers to access the region.
He agreed that it was important to support the region.
“It’s cultural. Everyone comes to Eglinton for something. I used to come for my haircut. That’s where my mom used to take me all the time. where she moved when she came from Jamaica. This is where my grandmother and grandfather came when they left Jamaica. It’s a legacy here, “he said .
“A lot of Jamaicans come to this specific region, Little Jamaica, just because they can access the things that are on their island.”
As for the BBPA, they opened their office in Eglinton West to allow local business owners to exchange ideas with each other. She also hired a marketing agency, Konvo Media, to help her implement her programs.
BBPA plans to run the following programs:
- Shop Talk Thursdays: The program will be hosted by a different company each week on topics such as technology, customer experience improvement, finance and money management.
- Web and e-commerce presence: The organization will launch a Little Jamaica app and develop digital media and online marketing for local businesses.
- Business Programs: The organization will provide assistance with tax filing, business plan development, financial reviews, payroll, business registration and marketing strategies.
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