Written by: Saman Dara, SFU Student
Jeremy Stone, director of the community economic development (CED) program at SFU, uses the concept of ecological resilience as an analogy for economic resilience within communities. The former refers to the capacity of an ecosystem to respond and recover from disturbances such as natural disasters. The current ‘disturbance’ in relation to economic resilience within communities is the pandemic. After these disturbances, the hope is for things to go back to normal. However, “You can only adapt to the changes that have happened [ . . . ] You will never be able to recover perfectly,” explains Stone in the first President’s Faculty lecture of 2021, The Hidden Gifts of Retail: Resilience and Planning for Community Life hosted by SFU Public Square and Joy Johnson.
Stone has 20 years of experience in economic development and resilience, including planning business recoveries for disaster horror stories like Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the 9/11 attack. He received an MPA in international economic development from New York University and a BA in anthropology from Reed College. Currently, Stone is completing a PhD in community planning at UBC. Stone humbly acknowledged that the information being shared by him is from many group contributions within his career.
In the past year, local retail businesses have experienced harsh impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic and government regulations around it. These consequences include gentrification, inequity, environmental concerns, and so much more. Like a destroyed grove of trees, Stone suggests that “if we lose these stores, we start to lose critical functions for society.”
In particular, we risk losing cultural creation and development within our communities. Stone showcased multiple businesses within Vancouver which are keystones for art and cultural development, including Rokko Sarees, an Indo-Canadian fabric store on Fraser Street. It’s a store that my mother frequents as she tailors traditional dresses for the South Asian community in Vancouver. As I realized how much my own family relied on these businesses to express our culture, I found myself agreeing with him that “retail businesses are really critical [to support art and culture] and we haven’t necessarily deemed them essential in these ways.”
Stone isn’t suggesting that British Columbia’s health guidelines need to be challenged. However, he is suggesting that municipalities need to do more to support and help local businesses recover as retail “is essential to our cities and our culture.” A point he emphasized throughout the lecture is that we should all be buying local.
Stone makes it clear that we need to view entrepreneurs as local problem solvers for our community well-being. Their economic performance cannot be assessed solely by sales figures, and that’s why the CED program prioritizes the “needs and values of the community and how those are being met,” explains Stone. Compared to multinational companies, our local entrepreneurs and their businesses produce eight times more jobs on a square foot basis, give 24 times more philanthropically back to our communities, and keep 63% of revenue (compared to 14% for multinationals) in B.C. These statistics help prove that our local businesses are sustainable, but this circulation of credit in the local economy as an investment is not necessarily considered by consumers.
To be fair, even with my three years of experience working in multinational and local retail stores, I was still unaware of the importance of local businesses. Stone’s lecture was refreshing considering that local businesses provide people with the ability to grow, learn skills, and experience successful mentorship, all the while serving different demographics, trades, and geographic communities.
Stone makes it clear that there is a priority towards supporting specific communities, such as Chinatown in Vancouver, which continues to face a great deal of gentrification pressures. In case of any disaster, Stone explains that “traditionally marginalized communities always suffer [greater] impacts. They have less long-term resources in order to dig themselves out.” Oftentimes, local businesses may not only be struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why where we shop is so important.
A 10% shift of consumer purchasing to local businesses would result in approximately 14,000 jobs, 25% more to local charities, and an additional $4.3 billion in B.C.’s economy. Furthermore, a shift would increase the chances of profits being reinvested in our own communities. The 10% shift to spending locally would be a good start to decreasing orders from Amazon or large online retailers. Alongside this consumer shift, Stone recommends that small businesses should increase business to business procurement and treat one another as vendors to ultimately increase the economic resilience of the community.
Stone also spoke about emergency management plans, referencing a ResilientVille program completed in San Francisco, in which municipalities map and identify keystone local businesses that provide critical functions for the surrounding community. He called for municipalities in B.C. to replicate this program as many cities in Canada — including Vancouver — are lacking an economic resilience plan in the case of a disaster.
Stone’s recent collaboration with Community Futures Central Kootenay and the Applied Research and Innovation Centre (of Selkirk College) processed plans for economic resilience in the Kootenays with the inclusion of eight municipalities. Stone shared details from this plan, including small business financing, technical assistance, and mental health support. It was surprising to hear that in Stone’s past experience, he’d found that governmental bodies were not responsible in the case of recovery from disturbances; instead, the responsibility was placed on bottom-up community initiatives.
Economic resilience is often ignored by municipalities within plans of economic development and emergency management. Conceivably, this is why there was so much disarray for local businesses during the first pandemic lockdown. Stone accounted for this disarray in the recent Vancouver Economic Resilience Study done by the CED and Local BC, which conducted focus groups with Business Improvement Areas and cross-city business surveys.
Their findings documented shortcomings by the City of Vancouver as there was lack of communication, complications to receive support, a lack of mental health support, and “essential” was not clearly defined. Stone was adamant that mental health support be prioritized as small business owners suffer from “double losses”; they are in the position to experience personal and business tragedies due to the pandemic.
As long as we support our local businesses, we are working towards economic resilience and we avoid losing critical functions in our community. In defending local businesses, he expressed, “‘Buy Local’ isn’t just for Christmas!” Stone stressed that “the City of Vancouver needs a plan for economic disruption” as we are still in the midst of the pandemic and prone to future disasters without an effective plan in place to support local businesses.