Rachel Ross, who owns Mandala Homes with her partner, Lars Chose, discusses best practices for creating a positive work environment for her employees. Photo: Jake Sherman

Nelson business community gathers to confront poverty

Nelson at its Best hosts business owners at the Hume Hotel

A free winter coat is just the start of what Sam Baio thinks Nelson businesses can be doing to help address poverty.

Baio, the owner of Valhalla Pure, organizes his company’s annual Coats of the Koots, a coat drive for local people in need. He thinks it’s a small gesture, but an important one.

“It’s one little thing that we do, and we could be doing a lot more,” said Baio at a meeting Wednesday that brought together about 50 business owners to discuss poverty in Nelson.

“It takes a lot of resources, money, and energy, but it has never been about selling coats. And our customers know that. They know they’re supporting our community.”

The event at Hume Hotel was organized by Nelson at its Best, which was formed three years ago to investigate local poverty. Speakers also broached topics such as how to boost employee moral, retention and productivity.

“One of the largest groups of people living in poverty in the Nelson area are the working poor,” said Anna Purcell, who spoke on behalf of the organization Nelson at its Best and not in her capacity as city councillor.

“The question that motivated this event was: ‘what are things employers can do to uplift their staff?’ Because, employers are engaging in poverty reduction that way — even when they’re not thinking about it in that very specific kind of way.”

According to the 2016 census, roughly 20 per cent of Nelson’s population earns less than $16,000 a year. Nelson’s 2015 median total income of $31,424, according to the most recent census, is about 10 per cent below the provincial average. And the city’s local child poverty levels are higher than the national average according to a study conducted by Nelson at its Best.

The intention of the meeting was to motivate the business community to address some of these systemic issues by highlighting what local business are already doing to improve the quality of life of their employees.

“Money is something that buys you an opportunity to connect with your friends, loved ones, your community, and the natural world,” said Purcell. “There is a quantifiable value in employee retaining, but less quantifiable is feeling like an uplifted and valued person that we hope to highlight today.”

A panel discussion moderated by Michael Hoher — which featured Baio, Jon Meyer (Oso Negro), Ryan Martin (Hume Hotel), Keith Page (the Repair Factory), Randy Richmond (Spearhead), Rachel Ross (Mandala Homes), representatives of the Kootenay Co-Op, and of Cartolina — formed the focal point of the afternoon. It offered local business leaders the opportunity to share the ways in which their businesses retain employees and contribute to their communities.

While the event was framed largely by a need to address poverty in the Nelson context, the majority of the business owners refrained from commenting in detail on any of the aforementioned systemic issues, opting instead to focus on how they have retained employees and offered them access to a high quality of life. Each of them did, however, speak to the importance of giving back to their community.

Jim Reimer, the pastor of the Kootenay Christian Fellowship, challenged those in attendance to take people who are unemployable and have them shadow their employees so that they can gain the skills they need to find jobs.

Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski, who was also in attendance, said providing access to affordable housing for his constituents was a priority, and praised the local business community.

“Businesses are very good at contributing to social causes, and this is certainly true in Nelson,” said Stetski. “If you can reduce poverty, and provide your employees with access to a living wage, you ultimately help people living on the streets.”

Keith Page called for a follow-up meeting next month to track the progress of local businesses and motivate owners to create change.

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