A local business is singing the praises of Ontario’s Digital Main Street program.
Digital Main Street (DMS) was first launched in 2016 by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas to support Toronto businesses in improving their online presence. In 2018, the Ontario Business Improvement Association (OBIA) and the Ontario Government partnered to expand the program to include all Ontario municipalities through a $12 million DMS program over two years. Since then, the program has received additional funding from both the Province of Ontario and the Federal Government.
DMS provides several different tools meant to help downtown small businesses expand their online capabilities. This includes a $2,500 Digital Transformation Grant to help them capitalize on digital avenues to promote their products and services. The grant program also provides funding for local governments and organizations like BIAs and Chambers of Commerce to hire a Digital Service Squad to help businesses make use of the DMS program and move their business online.
In 2019, the Merrickville and District Chamber of Commerce received a $10,000 grant from DMS to hire a Digital Service Squad member to support businesses in Merrickville-Wolford. In September 2020, the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville shared in a $127,345 DMS grant to fund five Digital Service Squads to service local municipalities including Merrickville-Wolford, Athens, Elizabethtown-Kitley, Front of Yonge, Rideau Lakes and Westport; in partnership with Leeds and the Thousand Islands and Gananoque; Prescott, Augusta and Edwardsburgh Cardinal; North Grenville and Brockville.
Chaiya Home and Garden Decor in Merrickville, owned by Lisa and Carlos Card, was able to make use of the Digital Transformation Grant twice over the last two years. According to President of the Merrickville and District Chamber of Commerce, Robyn Griff, they are one of nine businesses in the Village to receive the grant.
In 2019, Carlos and Lisa used the $2500 to hire a professional to build a website, which they didn’t have for their first four years in business. Lisa now recognizes how invaluable it is to have a website, as the vast majority of people tend to look up a store online before they decide to visit the physical location. “Everybody’s so busy, and especially where we live things tend to be a bit of a drive to get there, so you want to know that it’s going to be worthwhile,” Lisa says.
When the 2020 round of applications for the Digital Transformation Grant came up at the end of last year, Lisa wasn’t going to apply. It was a visit from the local Digital Service Squad member that encouraged her to take the time to fill out an application. “She gave me a lot of support and helped me through the application process,” she says.
Lisa was able to submit her second application just in time for the deadline last year and received the grant earlier this year. She is using the funding to hire Smiths Falls-based digital marketing firm, Crummy Media Solutions, to upgrade her website to make it more reflective of the business and put together a three-month digital marketing plan. Although it is still a work in progress, Lisa believes that the investment will definitely have a positive impact on her business.
According to Lisa, Digital Main Street is an invaluable program. As a small business owner in her 50s, she was intimidated by all things digital and didn’t really understand how it could help bolster her business. Part of the application process for the grant is watching several hours-worth of videos on digital marketing which she found extremely informative. “It helped me to see why it’s important. It’s not a nicety. It’s an absolute essential in this day and age.”
It has been even more essential due to COVID-19 as many local businesses, including Chaiya Home and Garden Decor, have had to close their doors to the public for months. Lisa says she definitely saw an upswing in online sales during the shutdowns, which helped them stay afloat.
Unlike many government programs, Lisa found everyone that she engaged with, from the Digital Service Squad member to her grant coordinator, to be extremely helpful and supportive. “They do their best to work with you and make it easy,” she says.
The DMS program has given Lisa the confidence to use the digital tools available to support her businesses. Small businesses are at the heart of communities across Ontario and Lisa believes this public investment is money well spent. “In supporting small business and helping them thrive, not just survive, it’s supporting the economy,” she says.