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Whistler entrepreneur talks small business with PM

Trudeau has been meeting virtually with business owners for input on recovery
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Clockwise from top left: Sea to Sky MP Patrick Weiler, Whistler entrepreneur Pepe Barajas, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Infinity Enterprises’ Lou Hudec on a virtual call last week. Screenshot

There was a time when local entrepreneur and Mexico City native Pepe Barajas couldn’t find Whistler on a map for the life of him. Fast-forward 12 years and Barajas has not only become a trusted leader in Whistler’s business community, but was tapped to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to talk economic recovery in a virtual meeting last week. 

“It was a real honour because being from Mexico, you don’t have the government calling you to ask your opinion, to see what’s working, what isn’t, where the gaps are, and what additional help may be necessary,” Barajas said after the Jan. 5 meeting.  

Trudeau has been speaking with business owners across the country as Ottawa looks to reinvigorate a sluggish Canadian economy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Barajas, the founder of Infinity Enterprises and the restaurateur behind La Cantina and Mexican Corner, stressed the importance of the “small entrepreneur” to both the Whistler and Canadian business landscape. 

“I let him know that we need to ensure that small entrepreneurs survive the pandemic because they add uniqueness to the economy and that it would be a shame to only see large corporations get to the other side of the bridge,” he explained. “If that happens and large corporations take over the majority of the market, it just makes it a lot harder for start-ups and smaller entrepreneurs to go up against these massive corporations with large budgets and a much larger team. In my opinion, that kills the dreams of future small entrepreneurs.” 

A strong advocate for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which was extended to June 2021, Barajas said it’s the kind of support that keeps workers employed, supports innovation, and stimulates the economy. 

“The wage subsidy was probably the best support, because we could keep people engaged in the economy,” noted Barajas, who said the subsidy allowed his workers to beef up their training, develop new menus and implement new digital ordering systems.  

“All those things we were able to do because we had the time. Then when the economy opens, we can turn on the switch and we’re ready; we are not struggling to bring people back.”

Sea to Sky MP Patrick Weiler, who helped facilitate last week’s meeting, said there are a number of federal initiatives either already in place or coming down the pipes intended to support recovery for the hospitality and tourism sectors. He was also in favour of Barajas’ suggestion for more nuanced, sector-specific funding that takes into account the economic realities of different industries. 

“This is something I’ve been working on since the beginning of the pandemic, especially, but even before that,” Weiler said. “I think it goes beyond sectors. It’s also a regional thing.” 

Weiler pointed to the creation of a new Regional Development Agency for B.C., “basically splitting Western economic diversification into one for B.C. and then one for the Prairies, and that’s really important so that it can be geared towards helping the specific and unique economy we have here.” 

Weiler also highlighted the $1.5-billion Regional Relief and Recovery Fund that has been in place since early in the pandemic, and specifically the recent earmarking of 25 per cent of the Sea to Sky portion of that fund, which is administered by Community Futures Howe Sound, for tourism-related businesses. 

 “That was really key, because at the beginning of the pandemic, because we shared this agency with so many other provinces, a lot of that went to supporting oil and gas companies and companies that service that sector,” he said. “We wanted to make sure this money was set aside for tourism businesses given the challenges they’re going through, so that was a big priority that we were able to action.”

A new credit program is also planned for highly affected sectors that will offer loans of up to $1 million to eligible businesses, with a 10-year payback period. Small business owners across the resort have been dead-set against taking on more debt, but Weiler said larger corporations, such as hotels, might require credit to “bridge through to the other side” of the pandemic. 

Weiler has also heard from local businesses about “some of the challenges with the [commercial] rent assistance program, particularly with landlords who weren’t local or in many cases, international.” In November, the program was tweaked so that tenants no longer had to seek permission from their landlord to apply for the subsidy—but for some, the move came too late. 

The owners of Three Below Restaurant, which closed its doors this winter after 12 years in the resort, claimed they had asked Imagine Cinemas, as the leaseholder, “multiple times” to approach property owner Larco about taking part in the rent assistance program, but were rebuffed. (Larco has maintained that any negotiations made were strictly between Three Below and Imagine Cinemas, the restaurant’s “de facto landlord.”) Then, last month, Imagine Cinemas filed a civil claim against the restaurant for more than $40,000 in unpaid rent.  

“It’s incredibly frustrating to see. The way I see this and our approach is that we’re really all in this together. It seems really short-sighted to me for the company to do that,” said Weiler, who noted that the rent subsidy is available retroactively back to late September. 

Imagine Cinemas' civil claim is seeking rent arrears covering the months from April to November 2020. 

None of the above claims have been proven in court.