Baker Karl Lilgert prepares a larch log that he plans on using as part of a fence around his business’s outdoor area. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

Entrepreneurs faced ‘sink or swim’ decision after flood

Grand Forks businesses left with little direction a year after the flood

What if? What if there was a business relief fund built in to the immediate disaster assistance package from the province? What if insurance policies were clear from the start? “If only,” say some in the Grand Forks business community.

Like many entrepreneurs in Grand Forks last May, the owners of Creative Custom Embroidery were given an ultimatum they never wanted to face: sink money into protecting our business now and foot the bill for repairs ourselves, or wait out the storm, get lines of financing sorted out and open the doors when that process has finished.

“We knew the only way that we would survive was to stay there to sandbag and bail water,” said Amber Esovoloff, Creative Custom’s owner. “If we didn’t stay there and do that, then we would have lost our business.

“I was thinking simply as survival.”

For 48 hours of trying to contain the drops leaching through the building’s brick walls, Esovoloff said, “we stayed because we knew if we didn’t, we would, we would have nothing.”

As Esovoloff put it, the decision to rebuild without waiting for financial support from governments, insurance and non-profits was a gamble. Put money into overhead costs to repair and open the store sooner, or wait to see what she could get in compensation before moving forward.

‘In no-man’s land’

According to the criteria set out by the province on who is eligible for help under the Disaster Financial Assistance program, “insurable damages in the private sector from wildfires, earthquakes, snow load, wind storms, sewer or sump pit back-up, water entry from above ground […] are NOT eligible for DFA.”

The reasoning for the strict guidelines appears simple: these are things insurance should cover and therefore, public dollars ought not be spent. However, according to a 2018 report from the B.C. Economic Development Association, 29 per cent of Grand Forks businesses surveyed said that they were unaware that insurance for water damage was even available to them. So even though they didn’t have it, DFA was out of the question because they could have.

One reason why businesses may have been unaware of their options was because such types of insurance coverage only became available in 2015. So if businesses had not refreshed their coverage in the interim, they may not have known about it.

The BCEDA’s report exonerates local entrepreneurs as well.

“It has been well documented that many businesses in Grand Forks were not made aware of the availability of flood insurance,” BCEDA’s report reads. “This is not the fault of the business if this is the case and therefore [DFA] assistance should be made available.”

So, left with insurance coverage and without provincial assistance, the next step for businesses was to turn towards non-profits like the Red Cross for financial support.

The charity offered up to $18,500 for uninsured losses to businesses, but therein again lies the difficulty for companies that suffered water damage. Because they could have been insured (had they known), they weren’t necessarily accepted by the Red Cross either.

“Red Cross is reluctant to help with those losses,” said Esovoloff, “because they feel that insurance should have covered it. Because it isn’t, we’re left in this no man’s land again.” Nevertheless, the Red Cross has spent $1.6 million to date, supporting small businesses and non-profits affected by the flood.

But it’s also the process that entrepreneurs felt was not worth their time for the reward. Esovoloff said that businesses have valued their time against Red Cross’s payout and some have decided that it just wasn’t worth their time to apply.

“They feel that their time is better spent focusing on their business than focusing on struggling with Red Cross,” she explained.

“None of these options have proven to be easy to maneuver, easy to manage or easy to access,” Wetmore said. “At the end of the day, it just doesn’t work.”

“It was disheartening for us,” said Wetmore about applying for various granting streams, only to be rejected. “I would have liked to have understood how we could have landed some of this work […] with the province more quickly. It felt like we kept lobbing stuff and it just wasn’t landing.”

Last May, water swelled up into the oven at Karl Lilgert’s bakery off Riverside Drive. As the levels rose, his garden was carried away across the parking lot to the west, 10-foot timbers picked up and drifted to neighbours’ walls like life rafts. This week, he’s dusted off his 50-year-old electric planer to strip the bark off larch timbers. His garden is coming back together, but not without help.

“People donated flowers,” he said, “and even a fountain.” Lilgert doesn’t even have outdoor power to run the water feature but will, now that it could have a purpose.

Though you can now virtually see the cocoa and cinnamon and olive oil smell waft out of his bakery, Lilgert said that looking back over the year, he would have done things differently, had he known what to do after such a disaster.

“Looking back,” he said, “I should have brought in a budget expert, because there were some other things that I could have written off.” Like damaged desks and cupboards and maybe even part of his oven. “But, bringing in someone like that costs huge coin,” he said.

Lilgert was fortunate. He had some insurance coverage and even received help from the Red Cross, though not the full $18,500 possible.

“There was a lot of hoop jumping,” Lilgert said of the Red Cross process, echoing the thoughts of Esovoloff.

For both Esovoloff and Lilgert, the state of storefronts on Market Avenue and 2nd Street are relevant. The orange tarps are slowly coming down. Granted, some are being replaced with signs saying that there’s no floor beyond the door, but others are paired with signs that indicate business is open elsewhere in town, that despite it all, enterprise persists.

“It won’t be long before a lot of businesses are back in,” said Esovoloff.

“The assumption in most cases from from various levels of government is that business will look after business,” said Wetmore, adding that “business will make decisions about whether to resume or not based on the bottom line.

“There’s a need for a lot of resiliency and a lot of entrepreneurial decision making that needs to take place over the next few years,” she said. “But I believe that this community will build back better.”

Wetmore said she swapped an optimism in government help for a faith in the local business community, after more and more businesses were found to be struggling to fit certain granting criteria. Her outlook, however, doesn’t mesh with a BCEDA analysis of the state of business in Grand Forks, published last fall.

“Businesses that expected to open in September are still closed and most are no closer to opening than they were two months ago,” the report said. “[We had] previously indicated the reopening timeline expectation from businesses was optimistic. The businesses still closed will likely remain closed for the foreseeable future.”

But the Gem Theatre re-opened before the new year, with owners Marius and Maureen Paquet sinking their savings into salvaging the community hub. Avalon Gardens and Gifts is nearing a return now too, as is Select Office to the downtown, and on the concrete outside his walk-up bakery, Lilgert is refreshing old larch logs to create a welcoming space for customers.

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