The Kingston Economic Recovery Team (KERT) held its first meeting on the morning of Wednesday, May 20, 2020, hosted on Zoom and broadcast live to YouTube.
Assembled by Mayor Bryan Paterson to help navigate Kingston’s re-opening following the financial blow of Covid-19, the team includes leaders from seven sectors of the local economy as well as labour, public health and the city.
Attendees agreed that adjusting to withstand social distancing requirements over the long-term, as well regaining customer confidence were two key challenges they all faced.
“Our whole business model is based on busy rooms, turning over many times, welcoming guests and lots of them,” says Tim Pater, owner of Black Dock Hospitality Group, describing the restaurant industry.
“On a high-level perspective, I think a lot of people in the restaurant business are really concerned about the viability of the model in what is going to be the new normal,” he continued.
“Now that the fear of shock of what has happened is starting to fade away, the outlook is long-term, and it’s concerning.”
Aba Mortley, owner of Cher-Mere Day Spa and member of several local business associations, echoed Pater’s concerns.
“What does this look like now to the next two years?” she said. “How are we going to sustain this and how are we going to get the messaging across to get people back in [the door]?”
Meanwhile Dan Corcoran of Corcoran Excavating Ltd. said the greatest challenge for his team is introducing new safety protocols on workers, some of whom have decades of established work habits. Coaching the workforce to understand the need for change, he said, is essential.
Kingston Workforce Hit Hard
Craig Dejardins, the City’s Director of Strategy, Innovation and Partnerships, presented updated regional workforce data to the team, reflecting how widespread the impact has been.
“It’s obviously been severe,” he said. “The Conference Board of Canada has recently identified Kingston as one of the communities in Ontario that has seen some of the biggest impact. Certainly the most recent Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey would confirm that.”
Over the past three months, he said, the region has sustained almost 6,000 job losses, with the most severe impacts in accommodation and food services, wholesale and retail trade, and the creative arts. New job postings are down 20 per cent from this time last year, he said, with a noticeable trend towards more low-wage jobs on offer.
With unemployment spiking, Bhavana Varma, President and CEO of the United Way of KFL&A said her organization has seen a 30-40 per cent increase in the demand for food support across the city, with all agencies collectively serving 1,000 meals per day. Meanwhile, the large fundraising events the United Way relies on for income won’t be able to proceed.
“Fundraising is going to be a challenge,” she said. “As much as you can do things virtually, it’s not going to be the same.”
The United way has invested $1 million in the past three months to keep local agencies going, she said, but worries what will happen if demand increases again towards the end of the year, as people use up their savings.
Meanwhile job losses in other sectors, such as post-secondary education, are just starting, according to Dave Doran. Representing the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Doran said some contract positions at colleges and universities simply aren’t being renewed.
The Cataraqui Centre, represented at the meeting by their General Manager Susan St. Clair, accounts for nearly 2,000 affected jobs alone. St. Clair has been working at the mall since 1982 and managing for 25 years. She said this is the first time in her life she’s seen the mall close.
“We’re ready to re-open,” she said, noting they would only do so once given the green light by the Province.
“We’ve had time to put together plans, but it’s the consumer confidence that we are really concerned about,” she said, adding that opening slowly and controlling traffic will be part of keeping everyone safe.
Taking A Measured Approach
Paterson suggested that economic recovery will go step by step.
“How do we address consumer confidence? We get a business model that works, then we address public health concerns,” he said.
Paterson said he wants KERT to serve as a steering committee supported by staff from the City and (Kingston Economic Development Corporation (KEDCO) to develop solutions across sectors.
“It’s going to be a really good forum for sharing information… That’s the power of what this team is all about,” he said, asking team members to “broaden the table” by reaching out to other members of their respective sectors.
“Bring forth the issues,” he said, “We’ll develop different solutions and programs, and bring them back to you.”
He said in this way he hoped to create “a cycle of dialogue that will not only develop a program, but refine it.”
Sean Billing, owner of Frontenac Club of Kingston, also suggested the group agree on a set of principles to guide the reopening, such as long-term over short-term planning.
Tricia Baldwin, Director of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, meanwhile suggested that Kingston needs to be “shovel-ready” for all sectors, to attract money from the province and federal government into Kingston.
The team plans to meet biweekly. Mayor Bryan Paterson hosted the meeting on Zoom, and broadcast it live to his YouTube channel.
Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community.
This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.