By Charlie Senack
It’s been one year since Judy Lincoln took on the role of executive director at the Westboro Village Business Improvement Area (BIA). While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges, Lincoln says businesses have been able to adapt.
Lincoln, who is originally from Winnipeg, has lived in Ottawa for over 18 years. She previously worked for Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit social enterprise based in Westboro for over a decade, and knows the community well.
Growing up, Lincoln’s parents owned a small business, making her appreciate the realities and challenges many others in their shoes face on a daily basis. That compassion has been important as the COVID-19 pandemic puts even more burdens on many local retailers.
“I always knew that there was a lot to learn coming into this position, and I would say that we learned a lot at the BIA about adapting,” said Lincoln. “We have really gone from running a few major events to focusing almost all of our energy on engaging with our members, checking in and making sure they are OK and seeing what they are doing in the community.”
Since March 2020, businesses have been forced to pivot in ways they never have before. As COVID-19 cases trend upwards, shutdowns follow, putting businesses in a precarious position.
As a result, Lincoln says the BIA has been helping its members understand the constantly changing world of restrictions and is also helping businesses with applying for programs, grants, and sometimes the appeal process.
“Every time there is a new regulation of shutdown, it’s just a little bit different from the last one,” she said. “I would say, like most people, the stress is definitely on a lot of our businesses’ owners and you can’t make one statement about how all the businesses are doing: each one has been doing differently based on the industry they are in.”
Westboro Village saw several major closures before the pandemic, and a few afterwards, says Lincoln, but new leases are being signed with occupancy starting in the next few months.
“A lot of people see home in main streets and the opportunity to walk,” she said. “You’re not inside with a lot of other people; you can do your shopping easily and safely from the street.”
The executive director says she is amazed by how creative retailers have been in pivoting to the virtual world. From fashion shows on Instagram to new online websites to make sales, Lincoln says business owners don’t give up because they love what they do.
“So many businesses have gotten online stores up and running, and others are doing local delivery,” said Lincoln. “For those who are uncomfortable to do in-person clothes shopping when allowed, we even have some business owners making deliveries to people’s homes to try the clothes on. Then if they don’t fit, they can always return them to the store. Everyone is truly adapting. They opened a business because they love it; it’s amazing to see that passion.”
Streets in and around Westboro have been quiet with Ontario in a six-week provincewide shutdown which could last even longer. With a stay-at-home order also in effect, Ontarians have been asked to go out only for necessities and essential purposes. But the BIA is planning ahead to the future when people can go out again.
Beautification projects are still underway and hanging flower baskets will be installed when the weather allows. “Shop the Village” will go ahead as planned this year, but will have to look different. Instead of a one-week sidewalk sale, it will last three weeks and will be completely virtual.
“It’s going to be all online and we are going to be giving away gift cards that we purchased, which will support a lot of our amazing retailers that unfortunately aren’t able to be open right now,” said Lincoln. “But we can still tell their stories and celebrate for three weeks who they are and what they offer.”
The virtual street fest will mirror “Wickedly Westboro,” a similar-style event which was held in the fall.
The BIA also organized a virtual International Women’s Day event in March, which is typically held in-person at a local Westboro business. Lincoln said it was a great way for female business owners to come together and connect about successes and challenges they have faced over the past year.
Lincoln believes no in-person events or promotions will be held again in 2021, but will continue to support businesses in different ways. The BIA is planning for all activities to be virtual, but is keeping a plan B in place in case an in-person component can be added later.
“As you are trying to vision and project for the next five or six months, it is hard to do,” she says. “At the same time, we want to keep the momentum going and continue to support all these amazing entrepreneurs in Westboro.”