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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hire One, evict another

Tuesday was the kickoff for Councillor Paul Hubert’s HireOne campaign. That’s the project which recognizes the importance of small business to the economic vitality of the city.

Hubert brought the proposal to the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee early last spring and a hard time he had getting anyone there to listen. They were more preoccupied with big dreams—pizza producers, superhighways and interchanges, and attracting large commercial outfits.

But Hubert pointed out that most of London’s businesses are small, employing fewer than 50 people. There are over 20,000 such businesses in London and although they, like the larger companies, had taken a beating during the recent recession, unlike their big brother counterparts, they were on the rebound.

They’re often not the best paying employers either, and largely non-unionized. But when you’re unemployed, even a less than perfect job can help with buying the necessities and maintaining a sense of dignity.

And unlike the large employers that the committee is constantly courting, most small businesses are rooted in their communities. They want to stay and be involved. While the bottom line is important, it’s not the only thing that influences their decisions about their location. They are the ones who get involved in improving and helping out their community. It’s their home. They have an established clientele. They’re not heading off to Indiana or Mexico.

So finally, Hubert’s suggestion that local small businesses be encouraged to hire one new employee and that a website be established to connect potential employers, interveners, and employees and to recognize and celebrate new hires has come to fruition.

It’s a good time for it, too. There are lots of students in town looking for employment, and with all the new business that students bring to the city, retail and service establishments will be looking for additional help. And there is Christmas only three months away, the time when many business conduct 90 per cent of their trade. It’s good the city is helping to facilitate job creation.

But what is the city doing to ensure that small businesses, the backbone of our economy, are supported by the way it does business? How do we ensure that small businesses are able to survive the bad times as well as thrive in the good times?

A few weeks ago  a story in the London Free Press caught my eye. It was about how a local small business, one established in 1980, a gift shop which features Canadian made products including works by local artisans, was being forced out of the city-owned market by that market’s board which includes a couple of our own city councillors.

The business in question is Market Crafts, a place where I like to shop for birthday and Christmas gifts. It has a good selection of local and other Made in Canada items. It is one of the original tenants of the market since its opening in 1999. In fact, it was in the old market building before that.
But in 2009, the business was sold to the adjoining tenant, Mayssa El-Sayegh and her husband Hassan Moustapha. It was not the best of times to take over a business of that type as the recession had hit hard and gifts, especially good quality and handmade gifts, become one of the first items that are off the list as people try to economize. But they signed a three-year lease which ends on October 22. They had been able to meet their rent obligations, but sales were significantly below projections. Despite appeals to the board for an extension, even an extension that allows them to take advantage of the coming holiday season, Market Crafts is facing eviction. Even the knowledge that El-Sayegh is expecting a baby next month did not move them. Their space is being assigned to a new retailer, one with no experience in the business. It too will be a gift shop.

According to the interview with Hank Daniszewski, market manager Bob Usher has scant sympathy for the business owners. The deal is that the market gets a cut of the sales as well as rent, and the current owners aren’t making enough money for the market. Pregnancy, Christmas coming—too bad. Out they go. He can’t understand why they would want to hang on given that their proceeds aren’t higher.

But, as El-Sayegh pointed out in her letter to the two city councillors on the board, she had offered to pay the difference that a higher volume of sales would have produced for the Market, a cool $5,000 for the privilege of renewing the lease. But to no avail. She was still voted out.

“We are writing to you today because both of you sit on the board as well as sit on city council. Both believe in creating jobs in the city and both of you believe in family and everything family entails,” she wrote to Bill Armstrong and Bud Polhill, with copies to the mayor and council.

Noting that other downtown businesses were also struggling, she continued, “We may have not hit target, but we are steady. We have amazing local artists, Canadian artists from all over Canada and of course a clientele of over 4000 individuals, who regularly come to Market Crafts.

“We are in need to continue in this business as this is our livelihood. Both of you are family-oriented and have a family business. You both know how important it is to maintain and continue a business to feed and raise a family. We invite you to visit us at our store and have us provide you with a tour and details about our business.” She concluded by asking the councillors to step in and provide their support.

Her efforts to engage the councillors failed. The market is run by an independent board, albeit one with city representation on it. They can’t interfere, they can only vote. Armstrong voted in support of her appeal. It wasn’t enough.

El-Sayegh and Moustapha have found a new nearby location. Unfortunately, they can’t move in until January. They will miss out on the Christmas business. They have a couple of employees that they hope to be able to keep on while they are waiting.

But they definitely won't be able to Hire One.


Dan Hilton said...

The relation between the Conant Garden Market and the City of London is one of the most untold stories in town. A government run subsidized high end market in the economic wasteland known as downtown. If you the taxpayer feels ripped off, just be glad you've never been a vendor there since the new building. Vendors take the real risk, do the real work, and pay a high price. Few make any real money other than the sub-contracted parking lot which used to offset vendor costs in the old building. Talking about the recent events with Market Crafts barley scratches the surface of what I've witnessed in one of the hearts of London. If only the City build the building and got the hell out of the vendors way like they did across the street at the (old) JLC.
Keep asking questions Gina!

Why's woman said...

Thanks for the report on Market Crafts, Gina.

I guess stupidity expands beyond City Council to its entities ... Covent Garden Market board.

To get minutes of the board meetings one is supposed to go in to the office, and talk to Amy Shackleton, executive assistant to Bob Usher, head of the Covent Garden Market (or so I was told, I haven't tried it yet). The market office number is on the home page of the Market website, tho' not evident on the Contact page, where it should be: 519-439-3921.

Probably the most productive thing at this point is to go into Market Crafts and buy stuff.

Anonymous said...

Cadillac Fairview - An Ontario Teacher's Pension Holding - recently dropped popular Eddie Bauer for more lucrative anticipated profits from new Masonville Mall tenant Apple. An example of corporate capitalism.

On the small business front it seems the quest for bigger & growing profits is also a well entrenched capitalistic feature of our society at the expense all too often of community and local entrepreneurship.

I would like to think that the decision on Market Crafts was a difficult one for the Market Board and that they gave all issues full consideration. Even so, maybe more sensitivity could be shown to provide an extension into next year.

John Husband said...

What a shame. Has the market board offered an explanation. There is a concept in business called a performance review. Perhaps this business could be put on one over six months before a drachonian decision such as this is made.

Anonymous said...

This issue isn't entirely up to The City of London. If someone has borrowed money from a bank, a private lender, or by some other means to purchase a business the agreement in the lending policy might be exclusive to family members only, or new immigrants. Sometimes hiring policies aren't up to the employer or license holder of the business.
This is a good idea, but it isn't going to be as easy as one, two, three.

Anonymous said...

I once had a terrific job at a great luncheon cafe called The Flying Pig, but the landlord didn't like the fact that the owner married a cop, and he owned the property so he raised the rent so rediculously high price the business owner had to sell out and let all her staff go and then re-rented the place to someone else at a lower price. ... When is Bloomingdales going to open up a franschise on Dundas Street. I heard they said they would if we cleaned up the panhandles...well, our panhandlers are clean now and fashionable.