While waiting for funding the province had promised him, Jak’s Diner owner Chris Cunningham found himself playing a one-sided version of answering machine tag.
At issue, he said, are two rounds of COVID-19 relief funding through the Ontario Small Business Support Grant he’d received email confirmation he was approved for.
These two rounds of funding, in February and April, were to be deposited into his bank account within 10 days.
“I’m still waiting on the money,” he said. “No matter who I call or email, no one has ever gotten back to me. I just want an answer. When am I getting the money? Am I getting the money? What happened to it?”
Cunningham brought his concerns to Sudbury NDP MPP Jamie West, who in turn reached out to provincial officials regarding Cunningham’s case and other business owners expressing frustration with their grant application responses. His NDP colleague in Nickel Belt, France Gélinas, did the same thing for her constituents.
This morning, the two politicians came together outside of Jak’s Diner for a media event, which Gélinas described as a “last-ditch effort to save small businesses in Sudbury and Nickel Belt.”
The province forced these businesses to close so are obligated to do more to help them, West said, clarifying that he’s not arguing against the shutdown to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but “the decision to not provide relief.”
West said that despite months of one-sided correspondence, including a June 30 call placed to the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, they’ve yet to find answers for area business owners’ questions regarding their grant applications.
“This is the same thing that happens again and again to small businesses when they call,” West said of his office’s lack of successful correspondence with the province.
“To date, they haven’t called us back.”
Cunningham, a business veteran with 12 years of experience in the industry, purchased Jak’s Diner in September 2020 as a result of things falling into place when the previous owners decided to divest of it.
“It was just luck,” he said, adding this luck was followed by months of ever-changing COVID-related health measures forcing the sporadic closure of his business.
He has managed to keep his staff on board, but said “it’s been touch and go a few times,” during which his business would have been in jeopardy if not for his parents stepping in to help.
He said the two rounds of Ontario Small Business Support Grant funding he has been approved for, totalling approximately $25,000, would have been a significant help.
Federal assistance, he said, has been more forthcoming, which has also helped float Jak’s Diner through these difficult times.
During Tuesday’s media event, West and Gélinas shared the stories of a few other business owners affected by the pandemic, whose attempts to receive funding through the Ontario Small Business Support Grant proved unsuccessful.
Great Escape Cabins owner Caitland Nobbs, based out of Alban, was informed she did not qualify for the grant.
Glow Hair Studio Sudbury owner Christianna Burke noted in written correspondence that only $20,000 of the $40,000 promised was granted to her.
Rob Waliser, who owns the Pet Valu stores in Chelmsford and on Lasalle Boulevard, wrote that “there is simply no communications that work with the Ontario Support Grant team,” and that he’s been waiting since March 5 to resolve an error in his application.
On the campaign trail in advance of the Sept. 20 federal election, Greater Sudbury’s two federal NDP candidates also attended Tuesday’s media event. Sudbury’s Nadia Verrelli and Nickel Belt’s Andréane Chénier flanked their provincial counterparts during the event, after which they told Sudbury.com that they share the same goals, despite their jurisdictional differences.
“We need to support our small businesses,” Verrelli said, adding that in addition to their economic contributions, small businesses serve as the beating hearts of the communities they serve. Jak’s Diner, she added, is best known in the area for its breakfasts.
Although Tuesday’s event centred on provincial COVID-related benefits, the two federal candidates credited NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh with pushing the federal government to extend the Canada Emergency Response Benefit from 16 weeks to 28.
Moving forward, Verrelli said that she’d like to see additional benefits come forward, especially as the possibility looms of there being a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It enables people like Chris to keep their staff on board,” she said.
In response to an inquiry regarding Tuesday’s media conference and complaints about poor communication from the province, a government spokesperson issued a written statement highlighting what the Ontario Small Business Support Grant program is.
The government spokesperson said the program is credited with issuing two rounds of direct payments of $10,000 to $20,000 each to more than 110,000 small businesses across the province, totalling nearly $3 billion in funding.