FREDERICTON – The provincial government will offer grants to small business owners to set up shop or expand their investments in New Brunswick.

Business New Brunswick Minister Greg Byrne announced a new fund during an awards event in Fredericton last night. Entrepreneurs will be eligible for up to $100,000 to open a new business and up to $60,000 to expand or diversify existing businesses.

“One of the most challenging things for any small business, and for establishing a small business, is access to capital,” said Byrne.

The program was an election promise made by Premier Shawn Graham last summer. The program drew criticism for focusing on grants instead of loans, as well as not offering support to a larger number of businesses.

“It’s our intention to foster and nurture the creation of new businesses,” said Byrne.

“We see this as money that will allow those businesses to leverage additional money, including loan monies for example. So by providing it to them in a grant, it will allow them to secure more capital for investment.”

The program was estimated to cost $5 million. Byrne said he expects up to $1 million to $2 million to be approved by the end of this fiscal year, depending on the number of applications. Manufacturing and processing industries, information technology companies, tourism operations, commercial service firms and some cultural enterprises will be eligible to benefit from the fund, entitled NB Growth Program. Interested businesses must provide a business plan to Business New Brunswick that will be evaluated along with their applications.

Earlier in the day, Byrne announced a new ambassador program that will see some of the province’s most influential business leaders actively promote New Brunswick during their travels. The goal is to get 100 ambassadors to sign on to the program within the next 100 days, said Byrne.

“I travel around, and others involved in business travel around the world, we’re continuing highlighting New Brunswick as an investment-friendly location,” he said. “We want to take this particular promotion to the next level. We’re asking how do we sell New Brunswick to the world and how do we let the global economy know that New Brunswick is open for business?”

Ambassadors will not be paid for participating in the program.

Although the program is a “wonderful PR exercise,” it likely won’t result in a number of new businesses setting up shop in New Brunswick, said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“The way to sell your province as being business-friendly is to actually be business-friendly,” he said.

Former residents living and working elsewhere are likely staying in touch with the events of the province and aware of the tax increases of the last budget and the angst around the recent report on post-secondary education that recommends turning several university campuses into polytechnic institutes, he said.

The province would be better served by creating a competitive tax regime, creating job opportunities and increasing the number of flights out of the Moncton airport, he said.

“If you get your fundamentals in order after being a mess for so long, people are going to write about that,” said Cirtwill.

A number of ambassadors have already signed onto the program, including Helena Cain, Aliant’s vice-president for enterprise sales.

“I think tapping in to the networks, in to the loyalty, in to the people who really have a vested interest in this program and this province and reaching to these assets is brilliant,” she said.