The weekly online meetings are hosted by the Fernie Chamber of Commerce. Paige Mueller/The Free Press

Fernie business community rallies together

Weekly online meetings keep business owners and residents informed on all things COVID-19

Over 120 community members, business owners and citizens tuned into an online business community meeting hosted by the Fernie Chamber of Commerce on March 26.

This was the second meeting hosted by the chamber of commerce in the past weeks. The first meeting, which took place on March 19, was so successful that organizers decided to spin the meeting into a weekly event, a place for important players in the community to meet, gather and discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on our community.

With over 120 people tuning into the Zoom meeting over the course of an hour, the event drew interest from people throughout the Elk Valley. Several key speakers included Fernie mayor Ange Qualizza, MLA Tom Shypitka, chief of staff at the Elk Valley Hospital, Ron Clark, manager of social responsibility at Teck, Nic Milligan, executive officer of Tourism Fernie, Jikke Gyorki and executive director of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, Brad Parsell.

“There is no doubt the Fernie business community is suffering the heaviest blow we have ever faced,” Parsell said in his opening address. “Local businesses are continuing to make extremely difficult decisions with little to go on and much that is still unknown at this point. But in the face of this adversity, there are some amazing examples throughout our business community of innovation and ingenuity through the crisis.”

Parsell heralded the businesses who are revamping their business models to adapt to the changing times, noting that several local owners are embracing the move to online commerce and delivery services. He also gave a shout out to local businesses who are helping in the fight against COVID-19 by manufacturing hand sanitizer or donating hotel rooms for front line health care workers.

“It is really encouraging to see our community pulling together to minimize the impacts this will have on people’s health and our health care system,” Parsell said. “The more we do now, the less the duration of disruption for our businesses.”

After Parsell had delivered his remarks, mayor Qualizza took time to update listeners on how the City of Fernie is coping with COVID-19.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to connect with you guys is to give a really intimate look at what we’re up to,” she said. “This is a really unprecedented time where it does feel like the government and small businesses are not at all adversarial, we’re working together in lockstep.”

Qualizza drew comparisons to the City of Fernie and the various business owners who were on the call, asking people to see the similarities.

“I want you to appreciate the fact that our challenges here at the City of Fernie are exactly your challenges. Instead of thinking about us and them, I’d encourage you to think about us as just a bigger business, a bigger employer,” she said in her address. “We’re a business just like you, we’re an employer just like you and we have the cash flow concerns also. We have payroll to make, we have the same cost drivers and utilities, as we all know, escalated last year. Our overhead problems are the same as yours. We’re also making the same decisions that many of you have already done. Yesterday we laid off all of our part time and casual employees and I can assure you it was not an easy decision.”

As city staff work diligently to represent Fernie residents’ needs at a provincial level, Qualizza ensured meeting attendees that steps are being made to lessen the effects of the pandemic on locals. Qualizza and Parsell intend to meet weekly going forward to discuss the needs of businesses in Fernie and Qualizza noted that “we’re going to work our butts off so that we know what you need so that we can advocate to the province.”

Representing the provincial level of government on the call was Tom Shypitka, MLA for Kootenay East. Shypitka began his address by offering a “virtual high five” to all of the essential workers in our community and across the province who are working diligently to keep people safe, healthy, and well fed in this time of crisis.

“My heart goes out to everyone on this call right now and everyone in the community,” Shypitka said. “It’s really a kick to the stomach when something like this happens.”

Shypitka was then able to give a brief synopsis of financial aid programs offered by the province, including the specifics of the $5 billion stimulus package announced by the B.C. government last week. Despite the negative impacts this virus is having on the business community in British Columbia, Shypitka still had some optimistic words to share.

“I’m really seeing how people are understanding how we’re all meshed economically together. I’m talking about everyone from your gas attendant to your hotelier to your restaurant owner. All these folks are so closely tied that I think when we come out of this, in the recovery stage, we’re going to see a real circling of the wagons and people are going to get together and instead of going on that Mexico trip, people are going to be staying at Lizard Creek Lodge or somewhere where they can have a staycation. We’ll see people supporting local bookstores and not going to Amazon…We’ll go out to Elkford for a hike and stay in their hotels and eat at their restaurants,” Shypitka said.

The other speakers at the online meeting echoed sentiments of support for the community. Dr. Ron Clark reminded people to practice good social distancing techniques and fielded questions specific to healthcare in Fernie. Nic Milligan shared with viewers information on how Teck is handling the COVID-19 pandemic and reiterated the ways they are working to keep their employees and the community safe. Jikke Gyorki, the final speaker of the event, reassured citizens that tourism in Fernie will bounce back, eventually.

The meeting wrapped up and business owners and citizens logged off, with more vital information for survival in their arsenal and a better understanding of what is happening in Fernie and across the province to support them. Some of Parsell’s parting words offered comfort and hope to our community.

“While the Fernie Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to helping our businesses through this crisis and managing our eventual economic recovery, we again want to stress that we are aware of the very real human element during this time,” he said. “It’s not all about the numbers. This is a stressful and difficult period for all. We encourage compassion and empathy as we all move through this together. We will recover from this as a local economy and a community, stronger than ever.”

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