Then COVID-19 hit in March and delivered the second half of the one-two economic boost to this historic community.
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“I’ve been here on Eglinton for 43 years and it’s never been so bad,” said Horace “Rap” Rose, owner of Rap’s Restaurant, a longtime community staple for Jamaican cuisine.
The pandemic has been a huge change for Rose and her restaurant, once a vibrant dining venue for famous reggae musicians in the heyday of Little Jamaica. For the past four months, he’s been limited to take-out and delivery only – an option that doesn’t leave him much profit.
“I pay a high price… 25% on some delivery costs. So I have to live with this loss of income. “
Rose says foot traffic, which had already declined around these areas before the pandemic, is now little or none at all. And with the bills still outstanding and now additional expenses due to the need for PPE, he had to make some tough decisions.
“My income has dropped 50 percent,” Rose said. “I had to fire a few of my guys… I put in overtime. While I used to work nine, ten hours ago, I now work twelve, fifteen hours easily.
” It’s hard. Very, very, very hard.
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Giant building signs, blocked sidewalks and relentless traffic won’t go away anytime soon, either. In February, Metrolinx announced that the line’s completion date, originally set for 2021, would be pushed back again, until some time “well until 2022”.
This sad reality coupled with a global pandemic has twice meant uncertainty for Beni Bouka, who has struggled to keep Beni Boo Styles, his African store on Eglinton just west of Dufferin, open for five years.
“This weekend was supposed to be Eid, it doesn’t happen; this weekend was supposed to be Caribana, it isn’t, ”Bouka said. “That’s where I get my customers from… so if all of these activities are shut down due to the pandemic, it’s no big deal at all.
And although its income has fallen by 70%, Bouka says its high rent costs have remained in place.
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“Most of our landlords don’t buy into the government incentive to give us the rent relief they’re supposed to give,” Bouka said.
“I closed my neighbors, there is a hair salon next to me, they closed and they just can’t keep up with the rent and the decrease in foot traffic in the neighborhood… it’s very disheartening.
In the last few years of construction, the York-Eglinton BIA says more than 40 businesses have been forced to close along Eglinton Avenue, the BIA’s stretch of road from Marley Avenue to Dufferin Street.
A BIA spokesperson told Global News that the organization is still assessing the full impact of COVID-19, but predicts that “many more store closings” will take place in the coming months.
Even when government aid and business loans are made available to help businesses stay afloat, small businesses often have a harder time accessing money – a challenge that Bouka and other owned businesses have. of the blacks along this strip know all too well.
“They look at your code, they look at where you are and automatically either you get rejected or the premium goes up. ”
These are barriers that black businesses often encounter that are rooted in systemic racism, says Nadine Spencer, who heads the Black Business and Professional Association, an organization that deals with equity and opportunity for the black community on the business, employment and economic fronts.
She says small businesses aren’t what she calls “Canadian businesses,” with easy access to legal services to help them through piles of paperwork and tough legal jargon.
“The challenges of keeping a business with no capital, of struggling to work 12 hours a day, your taxes aren’t maintained, your payroll isn’t maintained – these are the biggest challenges,” Spencer said. “Without that – what I like to call the ‘foundations of business success’ – it’s harder to get the funding to qualify.”
But Spencer hopes to bridge the gap with the launch of a new program called BAIDS (Business Advisory, Implementation and Development Services), a service launched by the BBPA in partnership with the City of Toronto, offering to do paperwork for Blacks. businesses all over Toronto, for free.
“Any business can go to BBPA and get these resources to make their business thrive, so doing the business plan, doing the marketing, doing the taxes, all of that,” Spencer said.
“Because if and when something happens again, businesses will be more prepared.”
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The BBPA website says the service is part of a larger turnaround plan implemented by the BBPA, the City of Toronto and the Confronting Anti-Black Racism unit, aimed at protecting and attracting more businesses. in Little Jamaica.
It’s a flickering light at the end of a very long tunnel for Beni Bouka, who is optimistic that a real and decisive change could finally be on the way to Little Jamaica.
“I hope they can follow along and be able to get all the help and assistance from the government and actually provide all the services they want to provide to the community,” Bouka said.
Still, she is worried about the damage that has already been done.
“My biggest worry right now is seeing Little Jamaica disappear,” said Bouka.
“We want to feel a sense of belonging, we always talk about the diversity of Canada, the diversity of Toronto, but if there is no such community then where is the diversity?
– With files from John Hanley and James Morrison-Collalto
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.