Development corporation handles millions in COVID relief funds

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer
abradbury@fortfrances.com

Financial support flowing through the Rainy River Future Development Corporation (RRFDC) was a factor in the survival of many small businesses across the District, according to a report presented to the Rainy River District Municipal Association annual meeting by RRFDC Executive Director Geoff Gillon. The organization has dispersed $2.9 million in COVID relief funding since the start of the pandemic.

Angela Halvorsen, the Business Investment Manager for RRFDC, has administered many of the relief programs for the corporation. Halvorsen said the RRFDC acted quickly to support local businesses when the pandemic hit two years ago.

“When COVID started back in 2020, our board actually reacted very quickly and put together a program called COVID-19 Emergency Loans,” Halvorsen said. “These were small loans up to $20,000 that businesses in the Rainy River District could apply for if they needed help, because they’d been shut down for any of a various number of reasons.”

Not long after the pandemic began, FedNor made funds available for businesses through the federal government, in the form of the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund (RRRF). The FedNor program made loans up to $40,000 available for businesses affected by COVID and if repaid in full by the end of December 2022, 25 per cent would be forgiven, FedNor recently changed the terms allowing businesses until the end of 2023 to repay the loans with forgiveness.

Halvorsen said when the FedNor loans became available, RRFDC helped businesses apply for them, which enabled the businesses to both repay their RRFDC loans, and benefit from the federal program.

“About half of the original $20,000 loans switched over to the RRRF loans,” Halvorsen said. “Then there was a portion of them that just stuck with the $20,000. That was all they needed.”

Halvorsen noted that a wide variety of businesses have accessed funding.

“There’s been all types of businesses from service-based businesses to tourism to retail, even a couple of construction businesses have taken advantage,” Halvorsen said. “But it’s really been all across the board.”

Halvorsen says many businesses were able to change their strategic plans and business models and have been able to get by with a minimal amount of loan assistance.

“Some businesses have done very well through COVID,” she said. “Because they’ve realized that they need to transition or pivot their businesses to be able to work through COVID, whether it be curbside pickups or deliveries. There are a number of things people have been able to do to keep themselves open in some form or another through the lockdowns.”

On its website, RRFDC has links to success stories from different businesses that they were able to assist in accessing relief funds. One such story comes from Andrew Hartnell of Andy’s Snack Shack in Rainy River, whose business was new when the pandemic struck.

“Rainy River Future Development was a big help during the pandemic,” Hartnell said. “They helped me start my business at the beginning and even though I was still a very young business they helped with getting a loan and other helpful tips.”

Halvorsen said some businesses have done well enough they were able to pay back loans easily, because they were able to use the funds to adapt to new realities.

“We’ve had a couple of businesses that have actually repaid their loans already,” Halvorsen said. “So again, those are ones that did very well through COVID. They used the funds initially to help their business pivot.”

One business sector that has found it hard to pivot or change is the tourism industry.

“Tourist type businesses have just been really affected by shutdowns,” Halvorsen said. “And particularly the shutdown of the border. I know the Ontario government has done a lot of work to try and promote domestic travel within Ontario, however we’re in a little pocket here in the Rainy River District. We’re just far enough away from Thunder Bay or Winnipeg that we’re just a bit too far for people to travel domestically to our tourist destinations.”

Some of these businesses have managed to stay afloat, but if the tourism season isn’t very good this year it will be a challenge for many to keep going.

As of the end of 2021, the RRFDC had administered 78 loans to 50 businesses through the RRRF and an additional 34 loans through the RRFDC’s investment fund. Fort Frances businesses represent 43 per cent of the loans, while the other 57 per cent were to businesses across the district.