While just about everyone seems to agree it would be good to put a fire under the local economy, new businesses are popping up in the area at a steady rate.
So far in 2019, the Town of Inuvik has issued 231 business licences, down one from last year and 11 from 2017, though the drop is within the usual variation from year-to-year.
“We are in kind of an economic downtown and it’s small businesses that keep Inuvik going,” said mayor Natasha Kulikowski. “They’re keeping the owner-operators employed but also the people they hire.”
Getting on board with small business week, she noted the town put together a ‘Small Business Passport’ — effectively a scavenger hunt to get stamps of locally-owned restaurants, shops and other services. Anyone who fills their passport can enter into a draw to win a $100 gift card towards a local business.
Western Arctic Business Development Corporation (WABDC) general manager Arthur Barrows said the non-profit gave out approximately 45 business loans last year. While the maximum loan the organization will provide to a business is $200,000, the average was closer to $20,000.
“The only bank with a physical branch in the Beaufort Delta is the CIBC and they are really uninvolved with business lending, so in a lot of cases we’re the only alternative for business people,” he said. “Overall, we have lots of very hard-working borrowers. It’s fulfilling to see people overcome their struggles.”
He noted WABDC also provided business advice to clients, assists in grant applications and other helpful business supports, though he noted there was a deficit of important services for businesses, such as accountants to handle things like payroll and corporate tax returns, or lawyers to handle things like liabilities, human resources and other important paperwork.
Barrows added some of his clients are still developing digital literacy skills that could help them access those services online, another service his non-profit helps with.
WABDC loan officer Younis Omer noted the nonprofit status of the organization allowed it to adjust its methods to deal with the low economy with its tourism booms and busts.
“The big challenges that businesses, especially businesses that want to open, is the storefront. The bills of running those are just unbelievable,” he said. “What we do is we’re used to these ups and down for business people and the economic situation, so when people run into trouble we try to help pick them up again.
“It works in most cases.”
While the economy is still struggling in terms of big-dollar investments, one thing Barrows noted was the cultural diversity of who was applying for loans to establish businesses in the area.
“Most of our borrowers are Inuvialuit and Gwich’in and we have a lot of African and Middle Eastern borrowers as well,” he said. “It’s very reflective of the community. This office is here to help everyone.”
Adding WABDC saw a big spike in applications during the Dempster Highway expansion, Barrows said the best thing the legislative and federal governments could do to help the area was to promote development, through better infrastructure or other projects to improve people’s lives.
“It would be wonderful if there were more big government projects, like say the Mackenzie Valley Highway linking us to Norman Wells or maybe even one day further south,” said Barrows. “With low economic activity, it’s hard to fund social programs. But I understand there’s more to it than just invigorating the economy, people have social and environmental concerns too.”
Kulikowski echoed his sentiments, adding more government investment would help get the ball rolling.
“There’s so many ways both arms of government could do things for us,” she said. “Supports in place like having a business development officer in are important to our region. Having someone in the Delta to act as a liaison between people and government is huge. So I hope we see continued support for those types of positions in town is very important.
“And of course any funding dollars that can be injected into anything, we’re always happy to see. If there’s incentives and tax incentives that business people can access I think that comes into play as well.”