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Finding the Middle Ground for small businesses in Cape Breton

Brittany Smith is seen at her downtown Sydney shared boutique space the Middle Ground. Despite not qualifying for any government assistance, the fledgling business has thrived since reopening in June — something Smith attributes to a renewed since of buying locally. Chris Connors/Cape Breton Post
Brittany Smith is seen at her downtown Sydney shared boutique space the Middle Ground. Despite not qualifying for any government assistance, the fledgling business has thrived since reopening in June — something Smith attributes to a renewed since of buying locally. Chris Connors/Cape Breton Post
SYDNEY, N.S. —

Brittany Smith has a lot to celebrate as she prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of her business.

The Middle Ground, a downtown shared boutique space run by and for local craftspeople and artisans, had only been open for a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly forced Smith to close the doors.

And even though the fledgling enterprise didn’t qualify for any government-related small business funding or rent relief programs, the shop on the second floor of the Prince Street Market has been busier than ever since reopening in June.

“We really have our community to thank,” said Smith, 32, who believes the pandemic inspired more people to support local businesses.

“I think that is really hitting home for a lot of people. I think there was always a section of people who naturally always thought buying local was important to them, but I think COVID brought that awareness to a whole other spectrum of people. We’re not actually advertising — we’re relying really on word of mouth and people’s experiences. People are coming, they’re having a good experience and then they’re coming back and they’re bringing someone else with them. They’re telling their co-worker, they’re telling their family member — they’re sharing our story for us naturally.”

Another factor in the Middle Ground’s success has been its model of what Smith calls "collective collaboration."

While running her design and décor business Day by Day Designs, Smith realized creative entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford their own bricks-and-mortar storefronts could share on rent and wages and have a place to sell their products year-round without constantly travelling to craft shows and markets.  

"I think there was always a section of people who naturally always thought buying local was important to them, but I think COVID brought that awareness to a whole other spectrum of people." — Brittany Smith

That spirit of co-operation proved to be a difference-maker when the Middle Ground had no revenue coming in for three months.

Smith said they staged two fundraisers — one for Easter and one for Mother’s Day — with the vendors donating products then selling tickets online to help pay the overhead expenses until the business could get back on its feet.

“We came together in terms of finding ways to be innovative,” she said. “It wasn’t just one person struggling alone.”

Now there are even more businesses helping share the risk and costs of operating in an uncertain retail market.

The Middle Ground has expanded from 13 to 23 vendors since opening and Smith said that is “growing on a steady basis.” At the moment, they are reviewing applications for the holidays and then the store will be at capacity. However, she said they do plan to have Saturday pop-up markets in their lobby so other businesses can have a place to sell their products if there aren’t craft shows this fall.

Smith also credited her downstairs neighbours — Doktor Luke’s and JJ's Plant Based Eats — with helping the Middle Ground thrive in challenging times.

She said the coffee shop and vegan eatery draw customers to 54 Prince St., which leads to more customers for her.

“The building is just beaming with positive vibes. People are specifically coming downtown for this corner.”

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