Business owners are hoping a $ 1 million federal grant aimed at revitalizing Little Jamaica will help raise the profile of Toronto’s historic community.
Owners said Sunday that the money is coming at a good time because black-owned businesses along Eglinton Avenue West, mostly located between Marlee Avenue and Oakwood Avenue, have been struggling since 2011 to stay open.
First, companies in the area had to contend with the Eglinton Crosstown construction. Recently, they had to deal with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. More than 50 black-owned businesses in Little Jamaica have closed their doors in the last five years.
“It was a challenge, but I persevered. I persevered,” said Sheryl Bryan Phillips, owner of Judy’s Island Grill, a small restaurant serving authentic Caribbean cuisine at 1720 Eglinton Ave. W.
“2018, I think, was our best year. Then the pandemic hit. Oh, I tell you, it was going down. Things have gotten better since we reopened.”
The restaurant, which has been in operation for nearly seven years, describes itself as “Bringing the Taste of the Island to You.” On its walls are pictures of Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer, songwriter and musician who died in 1981, and the retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
Bryan Phillips said she is starting to see familiar faces again, along with more pedestrian traffic, but what the community needs are customers outside the area.
“Once my sister, who helped me get this business, said, ‘Why don’t you file for bankruptcy? I do not know why you’re still going.’ “Something in me pushed me to keep going. That’s what I’m destined for. That’s my passion,” Bryan Phillips said.
Grants will fund programs
The grant from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario has enabled the opening of a satellite office of the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), a non-profit charity formed in 1983 that serves to address justice and opportunities for Black communities in business, employment, education and economic development.
Although the grant was announced earlier this year, the BBPA office opened last week at 1621 Eglinton Ave. W.
Frances Delsol, CEO of BBPA, said the grant will be used to fund programs for black-owned and operated businesses in Little Jamaica. That will tell Toronto that Little Jamaica is open for business, she said.
She said the LRT construction and pandemic have taken a heavy toll on businesses in the area. Earlier this year, BBPA distributed $ 150,000 in grants to 33 Little Jamaica businesses to help them pay rent or utilities. The hope is that the LRT construction will be over soon, she said.
The area was home to many people of Jamaican and Caribbean descent who moved to Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s. It used to be home to hundreds of black-owned businesses. Five years ago, it had more than 110 black-owned businesses. Today there are about 45 in the area.
“We’ve seen a deterioration in society in terms of the number of businesses there. And we’re here to empower those who are left and to try to bring others in so that the culture of what Little Jamaica is continues to remain , “said Delsol.
The area has ‘historical significance’, says community leader
Delsol said society appreciates the federal money.
“We’re going to offer programs that will help them not only thrive, but also have long-term sustainability,” she said.
“This society has a culture in it. If we can not maintain the companies that are here, then we will have a supply of new companies. We will have a different type of culture in this area.
“It is important that not only Toronto but Canada understands the historical significance of this area. It was built on the backs of people who came from Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. If we do not encourage the sustainability of this culture “It’s going to die. And it’s a part of us that we can not allow to die. We have to help maintain it.”
Stuart Brown, owner of Reggae Cafe, a restaurant specializing in Jamaican seafood and a large event room at 1653 Eglinton Ave. W., said he believes the $ 1 million grant should be used primarily to help Little Jamaica businesses get back into full operation. It should also be used on marketing, incentives for customers to return and efforts to clean up the area, he said.
The company has been in operation since 2013, and Brown took it over from his father in 2018. His second location in Sarnia, Ont., Currently maintains Toronto.
Brown said he has lost revenue during the LRT construction period because customers have had difficulty finding parking. He said the grant will help businesses in the area, but the LRT construction needs to be completed to give customers access to the area.
He agrees that it is important to preserve the area.
“It’s cultural. Everyone comes to Eglinton to get something. I used to come to cut my hair. It was here my mother brought me all the time. In fact, this is where she moved when she came from Jamaica. It “is here, my grandmother and Grandpa came when they moved from Jamaica. It’s heritage here,” he said.
“A lot of people who are Jamaicans come to this specific area, Little Jamaica, just because they have access to the things that are on their island.”
As for BBPA, it opened its Eglinton West office to allow local business owners to share ideas with each other. It has also hired a marketing agency, Konvo Media, to help implement its programs.
BBPA plans to run the following programs:
- Shop Talk Thursdays: The program will be hosted by a different company each week on topics such as technology, improving the customer experience, finance and money management.
- Web and e-commerce presence: The organization will launch a Little Jamaica App and develop digital media and online marketing for local businesses.
- Business Programs: The organization will offer services to help with tax registration, business plan development, financial reviews, payroll, business registration and marketing strategies.
For more stories about black Canadians’ experiences – from anti-black racism to success stories in black society – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.