Business owners are hoping that a $1 million federal grant aimed at revitalizing Little Jamaica will help to boost the profile of the historic community in Toronto.
The owners said last Sunday that the money is coming at a good time because Black-owned businesses along Eglinton Avenue West, mostly located between Marlee Avenue and Oakwood Avenue, have been struggling since 2011 to stay open.
First, businesses in the area had to contend with Eglinton Crosstown construction. More recently, they had to deal with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. More than 50 Black-owned businesses in Little Jamaica have closed their doors in the past five years.
“It was a challenge, but I endured. I held on,” said Sheryl Bryan Phillips, owner of Judy’s Island Grill, a small restaurant that serves authentic Caribbean cuisine at 1720 Eglinton Ave. W.
“2018, I think, was our best year. After that, the pandemic hit. Oh, I’m telling you, it was going down. Things have gotten better since we reopened.”
The restaurant, in operation for nearly seven years, bills itself as “Bringing the Taste of the Island to you.” On its walls, there are photos of Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer, songwriter and musician who died in 1981, and retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
Bryan Phillips said she is starting to see familiar faces again, along with more foot traffic, but what the community needs is customers from outside the area.
The grant, from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, has enabled the opening of a satellite office of the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), a non-profit charitable organization formed in 1983 that serves to address equity and opportunity for the Black community in business, employment, education and economic development.
Frances Delsol, executive director of the BBPA, said the grant will be used to fund programs for Black-owned and operated businesses in Little Jamaica. It will let Toronto know that Little Jamaica is open for business. She said the LRT construction and pandemic have taken a serious toll on businesses in the area. Earlier this year, the BBPA handed out $150,000 in grants to 33 Little Jamaica businesses to help them pay rent or utilities. The hope is that LRT construction will soon be over, she said.
The area was home to many people of Jamaican and Caribbean descent who moved to Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s. It used to be home to hundreds of Black-owned businesses. Five years ago, it had more than 110 Black-owned businesses. Today, there are about 45 in the area.
“We have seen a degradation of the community in terms of the number of businesses there. And we are here to solidify those who are remaining and to try to bring others in so the culture of what Little Jamaica is continues to remain,” Delsol said.
“We are going to be offering programs that will help them not only thrive but have sustainability for the long term,” she said.
“This community has a culture to it. If we can’t sustain the businesses that are here, then we are going to have an infusion of new businesses. We are going to have a different type of culture in this area.
Stuart Brown, owner of Reggae Cafe, a restaurant that specializes in Jamaican seafood and a large event space at 1653 Eglinton Ave. W., said he believes the $1 million grant should be used mainly to help Little Jamaica businesses get back to full operation. It should also be used on marketing, incentives for customers to come back and efforts to clean up the area, he said.
The business has been in operation since 2013 and Brown took it over from his dad in 2018. His second location in Sarnia, Ont., currently sustains the Toronto one.
“A lot of people who are Jamaican come to this specific area, Little Jamaica, just because they can access the stuff that’s on their island.”
As for the BBPA, it opened its Eglinton West office to allow local business owners to share ideas with each other. It has also hired a marketing agency, Konvo Media, to help implement its programs.