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YMM Small Business Insider - The Struggle to Thrive

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Local businesses battle through natural disasters and the pandemic.

The Shop Local mantra is not unique to the Wood Buffalo region. While every community understands the importance of supporting local business, especially during difficult times, the region’s communities have seen the impact of the economic downtown, natural disasters and a pandemic, creating even more pressure on local business owners.

By 2014, the decreasing oil price and its resulting economic uncertainty put the pinch on local businesses and their revenues. The 2016 Wildfire compounded their scenario, adding to the woes and creating tremendous new challenges for businesses when they worked to recover from the damage caused not only by flames but smoke.

Paddy McSwiggins, the beloved local Irish pub and restaurant, survived the flames in its Thickwood neighbourhood, where it has settled for over 22 years. But massive smoke damage and tussles with insurance led to an extended closure of the business, a lengthy renovation, and finally reopening to an anxiously awaiting community – and staff.

“Over the years, we have employed anywhere from twenty-four to over fifty people, single moms, students and others who rely on us as their sole income. Our closure after the fire didn’t just affect us; it affected them,” said owner Gareth Norris.

In the end, it was a grassroots community movement of tradespeople that saved the business, bringing the restaurant back to life when the future seemed very uncertain.

“It was out of the blue. Billy Martin called us and said that he and others wanted to help. We were at the point of giving up, but it was the hope and help we needed to keep going.”

After the wildfire, some business owners suggested the provincial government could have enacted commercial rent controls in the Wood Buffalo region to ensure it was in place long enough to help local businesses recover from the interruption in revenue.

Norris said it would have allowed their business to prepare themselves when new challenges emerged. However, the failure to do so affected those who survived the fire to prepare for future similar situations as their focus remained on survival.


New challenges on the horizon

While Paddy’s recovered from the wildfire, only to run up against the restaurant closures and restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic starting in March 2020, other businesses would soon succumb to the impact of yet another natural disaster.

Already impacted by the pandemic but hustling to make it work through curbside deliveries, Kathy Gillard’s bustling craft supply store came to a swift halt when the floodwaters breached the downtown core and impacted her, along with hundreds of other businesses and thousands of residents.

Gillard’s shop was in the centre of the massive flooding seen in Fort McMurray’s downtown last year in late-April.

“The spring flood was devastating for us. We lost seventy-five percent of our inventory, and insurance only covered ten thousand dollars, which was the value of the order that was on the floor that just arrived before the flood hit us. We lost all our shelving, two laptops, our point of sale; I could list so many things,” said Gillard of Kathy’s Fibre Arts.

After the flood, the community rallied around Gillard by starting a fundraising event to help keep her business open, despite the lack of insurance coverage, a financial reality that devastated many.

“The community is the only reason why I am still open. A customer and good friend, Holly White, opened a GoFundMe account. And within forty-eight hours, she raised over twenty-three thousand dollars to help us get back on our feet,” she explained.

“I also had dozens of people come to move, sort and help with cleanup. Search and Rescue came with a team of people, thanks to my husband for the quick thinking and phone call to them, and helped move anything salvageable to storage. I had Big Steel Box donate a sea can, and Marty Giles of Northstar Ford offered me space on his Gregoire lot to put it. There were so many people who reached out to help.”

Gillard ended up moving the business to Timberlea to reopen as soon as possible, ensure steady revenue and avoid the potential of being impacted by another flood.

For the owner of The Little Pet Company Ltd., Michael Langille, the rising floodwaters meant evacuating live snakes in boxes on a Fish and Wildlife boat from his business on Franklin Avenue.

Langille stayed as long as he could to store items on higher shelves and protect his stock, including live fish. But he was forced to abandon his store after the electricity failed and water began to cover the floor.

Primarily focused on freshwater fish and aquarium supplies, Langille’s business reopened after some clean-up and repairs with an expansion to include more supplies for cats, dogs and other pets.

When he returned to the shop after the flood, he found customers and community members anxious to assist in the restoration effort, so his business could return to operation as quickly as possible.

The store remains open as an essential service, which helps secure its future and may give every reason for optimism to other small businesses, as Langille explained.

“We have managed to survive and grow thanks to the support of the community. We have five full-time employees, an increase over time that has matched the growth in our business,” he said.


The Paddy McSwiggins staff shared a welcome back greeting by gathering for a team photo in June 2020, after the first lockdown restrictions were lifted for restaurants. Photo supplied
A look inside Paddy McSwiggins pub during the COVID-19 pandemic. The local business only reopened for a short time between its wildfire recovery to find itself with new challenges amidst the ongoing restrictions. Photo supplied
Faith and Kourtney Gillard helped their mother Kathy open her new location by painting shelves on May 30, 2020. Kathy’s Fiber Arts & Crafts relocated from downtown to 1-118 Millennium Drive in Timberlea, after the spring flood destroyed her business. Photo supplied
The Little Pet Company Ltd. staff stand at the business’ storefront downtown on Franklin Avenue. From left to right: Catharine Vangen (store manager), Michael Langille (owner), Kimberly McGregor and Brandon Kelloway. After the spring flood recovery, owner Michael Langille said he decided to expand his business to offer more pet supplies in the city. Photo supplied


A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.