Chamber town hall focuses on provincial pandemic supports

Local economy in focus

Economic renewal and support for the local community were high on the agenda, as the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce hosted the first of a series of virtual economic town hall meetings.

Taking part in Friday's Zoom conference were Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation; Lana Popham, minister of agriculture; and Harwinder Sandhu, Vernon-Monashee MLA.

Chamber general manager Dan Proulx moderated the event.

Kahlon said chambers of commerce "are more important than ever during these challenging times."

He said he's made it a priority to meet with business owners, adding: "B.C. entered the pandemic as an economic leader in Canada ... The second wave (of the pandemic) has been a struggle, but we're making progress."

He noted B.C. has seen nine consecutive months of job growth since the depth of pandemic shutdowns in April.

Kahlon said the recovery grant is one part of a package of supports, including tax credits, property tax breaks, liquor price reductions for restaurants , and others.

He said the program was misunderstood by many, who thought it was a loan. "It's important to know it's non-repayable and businesses should apply now," he said.

It has also been changed "so bookkeepers and accountants can do work for you and submit the application. And we will pay them up to $2,000 to do it."

He said it will decided in coming weeks whether it will be extended.

Kahlon noted 70% of businesses in B.C. are currently relying on some form of government support, and he expect a big uptick in travel across B.C., including Vernon, when restrictions are lifted.

Local MLA Harwinder Sandhu started by paying her respects to OKIB elder, band councillor, school trustee and educator Mollie Bono, who died this week.

She said she's been meeting with business owners about how government can best help them "so we can bring the best of what Vernon-Monashee has to offer to the region, B.C. and the world."

Asked about grant funding for Vernon's new cultural centre, Sandhu said she has supported the project since before her election in October, and since then has spoken directly with Premier John Horgan to advocate for it.

"There are many competing priorities right now, and this is a project that I would love to see come to fruition... The grant process is underway," she said.

Sandhu was also asked about allowing non-food vendors back into farmers markets, to which she acknowledged "they are a great draw to the market ... I do understand the frustration and anxiety vendors are feeling."

She said government defers to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on such matters, and the vendors will be allowed back when it is deemed safe to do so. Meanwhile, she encouraged them to apply for the government's online store creation grant.

Popham noted there are 65,000 people in B.C. working in agriculture, food, and fisheries.

"It's a massive economic driver," she said.

"People started to realize in the pandemic, as shelves were becoming bare, that they have worries about their food security."

She said this was "not so much that goods were not available," but more about "enthusiastic buying."

Popham said the pandemic has forced producers to become more nimble, and they have realized that "consumers believe in what we are producing here and promoting through Buy BC."

She said one big policy change has been to encourage health authorities to buy more B.C. products – "That puts money into communities like Vernon."

Regarding succession planning in farming and land values that are too expensive for the younger generation of farmer, Popham says the province has started a successful land-matching program that she described as "speed dating for farmers."

"It's bringing acres back into production ... we put available acres in a database and match with new farmers with land that is available."

The chamber has three more town halls coming up:

  • March 3 – Mel Arnold, North Okanagan-Shuswap MP; and Pat Kelly, Conservative shadow cabinet minister for small business and Western economic diversification
  • March 31 - Sam Samaddar, airport director, Kelowna International Airport
  • April 7 - Greg Kyllo, B.C. Liberal critic for labour, and Todd Stone, critic for jobs, economic recovery and innovation

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