Thousands of businesses in Manitoba have benefited from a multi-million dollar pandemic relief fund put in place by our provincial government.

Kay Gardiner is with the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce. She says in March of 2020 if you were a business owner you suddenly needed to take a long hard look at your operations.

"You had to see how you were going to deliver what you used to deliver in person and you had to deal with online tools," explains Gardiner. "So every single one of us got thrust into a digital-first environment."

Gardiner says a lot of businesses felt ill-prepared and were suddenly facing a new challenge. She says for years chambers have been doing surveys to find out what the concerns are of businesses in Manitoba. Gardiner says digital capacity was never on the Top 10 list of concerns prior to 2020. When the pandemic hit, it quickly became the number two concern.

The Manitoba government put together a $50 million relief fund with $15 million of that earmarked for digital adoption and adaptation. The announcement was made in October. The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce became the administrator of that fund and from there came the Digital Manitoba Initiative.

Gardiner is the Program Director for Digital Manitoba Initiative. She says this program is made up of two components; TechUP and PowerUP. She explains TechUP has a $5,000 cap per application, helping businesses to quickly identify items in their digital tool kit that were missing. An example of this could be a touchless point of sale system. PowerUP has a $25,000 cap per application and is intended more as a business case.

When they opened the intake for the first round of applications in October, Gardiner says they were inundated with proposals. Within six days they needed to temporarily close the intake, to make sure that had not already exceeded their limit. The application process re-opened in February but Gardiner says the deadline has now passed for both programs.

According to Gardiner, more than 1,000 companies have been approved, with a further 1,500 applications still pending. Not all proposals were accepted.

Gardiner says for some, this reimbursement grant saved their business.

"We had one that was very kind and called it a godsend," she adds. "I appreciate his sentiment."

Gardiner says one thing this does is increase competitiveness. She notes if a business can be digitally savvy, it can be digitally active, making that business more competitive in the market.

The Digital Manitoba Initiative has already paid out more than $5 million. Gardiner says in the first round of applications, more than 20 per cent of approved businesses were from outside the Perimeter Highway.

"The need far exceeds what I ever could have imagined," she admits. "My own personal opinion is digital transformation is here to stay and that means different things to different businesses."