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The governments hope to help as many as 21,900 Ontario businesses boost their digital presences through Digital Main Street.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The federal and Ontario governments will spend nearly $58-million to help small businesses move online as they grapple with diminished revenues during the pandemic and prepare to reopen.

The funding will primarily help to expand a Toronto-based program called Digital Main Street to assist entrepreneurs across all of Southern Ontario. Created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Digital Main Street is designed to help entrepreneurs build web stores and give training around digital marketing and logistics.

The Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, nicknamed FedDev, will provide $50-million from its share of the $962-million Regional Relief and Recovery Fund, which was announced in April. The Government of Ontario will provide $7.65-million.

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Federal Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly and Prabmeet Sarkaria, Ontario’s associate minister of small business, are expected to announce the funding Thursday morning. Ms. Joly’s office shared details with The Globe and Mail late Wednesday.

Ontario’s government says that about 60 per cent of the province’s small businesses have a website, and only 7 per cent can process payments.

The governments hope to help as many as 21,900 Ontario businesses boost their digital presences through Digital Main Street while creating 1,400 student co-op jobs to develop e-commerce stores.

Business Improvement Area organizations and startup hubs across the province, including Invest Ottawa and Communitech, are expected to roll out the program, the governments said. Shopify Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Mastercard Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have also lent assistance to the Digital Main Street program.

Storefront small businesses were among the first forced to close because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, driving revenues down to the point where many struggle to pay bills – and a growing number have shut down for good.

While governments have rolled out numerous relief programs for entrepreneurs, including forgivable loans and rent relief, many of the programs have faced criticism for being difficult to access – prompting demand for more and more-flexible programs to boost business.

Of the funding announced Tuesday, $7.7-million will be directed to the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Scaleup Institute, to expand its Recovery Activation Program across the province. Although similar to Digital Main Street, it offers entrepreneurs a broad suite of services, including consulting around supply chains and customer acquisition. The governments have set a target of 1,000 businesses to assist through this program.

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