Historic community needs higher profile in Toronto, business owners say
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 on Sunday 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.
“One time my sister, who helped me to get this business, said: ‘Why don’t you file for bankruptcy? I don’t know why you are still going.’ But something within me was pushing me to continue. This is what I’m destined for. This is my passion,” Bryan Phillips said.
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.
Although the grant was announced earlier this year, the BBPA office opened last week at 1621 Eglinton Ave. W.
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.
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.
Delsol said the community is appreciative of the federal money.
“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 who 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.
“It’s important that not just Toronto, but Canada understands the historic significance of this area. It was built on the backs of people who came from Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. If we don’t encourage sustainability of this culture, it is going to die. And it is a part of us that we cannot allow to die. We have to help sustain it.”
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.
Brown said he has lost revenue during the LRT construction period because customers have found it difficult to find parking. He said the grant will help businesses in the area, but LRT construction needs to end to enable customers to access the area.
He agrees that it’s important to sustain the area.
“It’s cultural. Everybody comes to Eglinton for something. I used to come for my hair cut. This is where my mom brought me all the time. Actually, this is where she moved when she came from Jamaica. This is where my grandmother and grandfather came when they moved from Jamaica. It’s heritage here,” he said.
“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.
The BBPA plans to run the following programs: