In order to help merchants get through the pandemic, the city implemented a plethora of emergency measures in collaboration with its partners. The challenge was huge. These measures had to be fast, effective and adaptable.
From the very start of the crisis in March 2020, the survival of the local economy was a major issue due to the closing of non-essential businesses. Right away, the city had the cooperation of the merchant support network, whose mission is the vitality and longevity of businesses.
Isabelle Paille, commercial development director of PME MTL Centre-Est, and Billy Walsh, director of the Wellington commercial development centre and president of the Association des sociétés de développement commercial de Montréal (ASDCM), tell us more about how this ecosystem mobilized during the crisis.
As business support organizations, you’re at the front line with respect to entrepreneurs’ everyday needs. How does the role of your network ensure Montréal’s commercial vitality?
Isabelle Paille: Our mission is to guide entrepreneurs, primarily financially, but also on the ground. We go out and meet entrepreneurs-merchants and develop long-term relationships with them. I like to say that we are a funding source on a human scale.
Billy Walsh: We act to make neighbourhoods’ vitality and prosperity sustainably. Our primary mission is attractiveness. Our goal is to make commercial streets shine. We interact on the ground with the merchants.
Last year was very difficult for businesses due to the pandemic. What kind of support did merchants ask for the most?
Isabelle Paille: First and foremost — financial support, because the closures were for such long periods. However, we also sensed that entrepreneurs needed support to plan for the future. Merchants were wondering about how to find assistance in the right places so they could bounce back. Our role was to be the wind under the wings of merchants so that they could keep flying during and after the pandemic.
Billy Walsh: On our end, it was all kinds of aid - accounting, tax, financial, psychological — Sometimes it was just about being a good listener. Businesses needed predictability so badly. I’m thinking especially of restaurants, whose needs have been huge over the past few months. They really needed to know what the reopening plan would be.
Has the new reality changed the way you evaluate merchants’ needs, whether for financial aid or technical support?
Isabelle Paille: It’s too early to say, as lockdown has only just ended. However, it consolidated our understanding of the needs of certain merchants, particularly with regards to implementations. There were elements that we were already looking at, beyond the financial aspects, that we’re now examining more closely, such as marketing, business models, distribution channels, the client experience, collaboration between businesses and partners… We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
Billy Walsh: Today, the watchword is diversity. Diversity equals resilience. From now on, when we plan commercial streets, diversity needs to be at the centre of our thoughts. I’m talking about diverse clientele, diverse uses, diverse businesses - the big picture. Also, local commercial streets now have a huge opportunity — people working from home. How will this new reality change the way we design streets? This is a brand-new clientele that we never had before on weekdays. People are changing the way they consume. It’s really fascinating.
What impact has the city’s financial support had on your projects or your response to merchants?
Isabelle Paille: For us at PME MTL Centre-Est, it meant that we could support a larger number of entrepreneurs — about 10 times more than usual, thanks to the city’s help. This program already existed and was created to support merchants more easily and more quickly. It’s a really great program that was well thought out and very effective for preparing businesses’ recovery. To my knowledge, Montréal is the only city in Québec to have implemented such a program and I’m proud to have been part of this initiative.
Billy Walsh: Other than certain administrative challenges around the speed of the crisis, I think the support projects and programs for commercial development corporations were there when it was crucial.
What’s the biggest challenge that you and merchants will face over the next few years?
Billy Walsh: Innovation. You can’t innovate when commercial rent is too high. I’d like for us to implement retail commerce incubator initiatives in Montréal.
Isabelle Paille : I’m also interested in the idea of incubators. We also need to convince financial institutions to invest in retail commerce. Organizations like us also need to be more and more innovative.