Shops in Little Jamaica are at risk of closing due to delays in opening the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, local businesspeople say.
Some black-owned businesses have already shut down as the community has endured the LRT construction for the past 10 years, according to Michele Halsall, program manager for Little Jamaica at the Black Business and Professional Association.
“The small businesses in this area are really waiting patiently to hear the timeline for the LRT opening, because they need the revenue, they need the foot traffic,” Halsall said.
Andre Forrester, owner of Highlife Restaurant Cuisine, said the continuing construction makes the area congested and brings his business’s income down during the day and evening.
“The traffic has cut down on what you’re able to do,” Forrester said. “You can’t get anywhere at certain times here. If you watch outside at like four o’clock, there’s going to be jam-packed traffic bumper to bumper all the way from Allen Road up past Dufferin. It’s insane.”
The 25-stop, 19-kilometre line was originally scheduled open in 2020, but the pandemic made it difficult for the line to be finalized, and it got delayed until 2021. A new opening was set for the fall of 2022, which also didn’t work because of testing and safety work, according to Metrolinx’s announcements.
City’s support to Little Jamaica — was it enough?
Then Toronto mayor John Tory announced in January this year the city and funding partners FedDev Ontario and Metrolinx would make more than $5.4 million in funding available to support local small businesses. Small businesses affected by transit construction would be eligible for grants up to $50,000.
“Well, I think they’ve tried to help but I don’t think they have shown enough,” Forrester said. “They’ve offered government grants for certain things they have interrupted or done for our foot traffic and for the traffic produced on the roads. But I don’t think it’s enough.”
According to Forrester, when businesses apply for the grants, it takes several months before they receive the money.
“And when we contacted them, they said it’s gonna be a long, long time before that grant comes through because everybody on Eglinton is applying for the grants,” Forrester said.
And not every business qualifies for the grant from the city, he said.
“So I think that they’re trying to do a little bit but I don’t think they’ve done enough,” Forrester said.
The majority of Toronto’s black-owned businesses are in the Little Jamaica area and they form a vibrant community, with a lot of music, a lot of restaurants, and a lot of hair stylists, Halsall.
Hair stylist Maranda Powell said the only support her business Natural Touch has received is from the Black Business and Professional Association.
“They support us by letting us know what’s going on in the community, letting us know when meetings are coming up so we can have a voice and try and see whatever’s bothering or affecting our businesses,” Powell said.
She still has many clients because of social media, but many of them are discouraged by the construction.
“When my clients come, they’re worried about where to park,” Powell said. “It’s not motivating them or encouraging them to come over here because a lot of times they think that there’s lots of traffic, construction and things like that.”
If she had to sum up her feelings in one word, it would be “disappointed,” Powell said.
“One minute we think the construction is clearing up, and then the streets are blocked again. So that’s pretty disappointing because everything should be up and running. We’re in the central area, so business should be going even smoother or busier. But nothing.”
Nicola Martin opened Ethan’s Chill Spot in 2021 thinking it would be a busy place, but soon found the Crosstown construction was affecting her business badly.
“The businesses out here are suffering — ever since the first day that I opened,” Martin said. “In the summertime, you’ll get a few more customers, but not much. That should be on a slow day. But it’s just slow around all the businesses out there.”
According to Martin she has been patiently waiting for the Crosstown to be over, and each time she thinks they are going to open, there is a delay.
“I would love to hear when they’re going to open,” Martin said. “I would think I would want to wake up one morning and just see that it’s open. To see what difference I’m gonna see out here.”
According to Ivan Simic, community engagement advisor from Metrolinx, a new opening date for the LRT is yet to be set.
“Currently, the focus is on continued train and systems testing and commissioning across the entirety of the line to ensure that we can open a safe and reliable transit system,” Simic said in an email.
Little Jamaica is known widely for its expertise in music, restaurants, hair stylists, barbers and other businesses, so it really needs Toronto and surrounding areas to support the area so that no other business closes, Halsall said.
“And the reality is that there are some businesses that have closed that couldn’t wait for the project to end,” she said.
“But really, we’re open and ready for business.”