One of Winnipeg's most influential corporations is doing its best to will Manitobans into post-pandemic normalcy — and it's leading by example.
True North Sports + Entertainment, the owners and operators of Canada Life Centre and the Winnipeg Jets, has reopened the downtown arena to sports and music fans after 18 months of pandemic shutdowns.
True North has already hosted two full capacity pre-season hockey games, while country superstar Eric Church takes to the arena stage Saturday night, with a large crowd of fully vaccinated fans expected to be in attendance.
With fans coming back downtown in droves, True North employees are doing the same.
Since August, True North’s 185-person team has been working from its new offices at True North Square while following all public orders, said Christina Litz, the company’s new chief brand and commercial officer.
Litz said it was incumbent on the organization to practise what it preaches.
"If we are inviting our fans and guests to come to our venues (including the Burton Cummings Theatre), we can’t expect to be doing that without leading by example," said Litz. "So we are absolutely back at work and back in the office. We at True North inherently believe how important the downtown community is to Winnipeg culture.
"We think most Winnipeggers agree with that."
However, numbers show the re-population of commercial activity downtown is going slower than expected.
"... we are absolutely back at work and back in the office. We at True North inherently believe how important the downtown community is to Winnipeg culture." — Christina Litz
A survey completed this week by Probe Research for Downtown Winnipeg BIZ found 24 per cent of downtown workers are back in the office full-time, up from 20 per cent in March.
"It seems like it is a little slow going," said Pamela Hardman, director of marketing, engagement and communications for the BIZ. "But we are seeing a bit of an uptick. It is happening with folks like True North leading the way."
While businesses like True North are encouraging others to come back downtown in a responsible, safe manner, there remains plenty of reticence.
The head offices of Manitoba Hydro and IG Wealth Management, both on Portage Avenue, are likely to remain largely uninhabited until early in the new year.
An internal memo to IG Wealth Management staff, obtained by the Free Press, said while it required employees to provide vaccination status by Oct. 1, an eventual reopening isn't likely until early 2022.
"We have chosen the effective date of Dec. 31 to apply the learnings, insights and practices of others to inform our IGM approach and we intend to provide you with further details in advance of the effective date," the memo states.
At Manitoba Hydro, a block away from Canada Life Centre, only about 10 per cent of its 1,600 staff members have returned to the office.
"We will know for sure the exact pace sometime early in the new year on how we begin to safely return people to the office," said Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen.
At 201 Portage Ave., the multi-tenant office tower is getting re-populated at a quicker pace.
Jim Moore, manager of the building for Harvard Property Management, said the office tower is now about 50 per cent occupied, compared with 35 per cent in June.
“We will know for sure the exact pace sometime early in the new year on how we begin to safely return people to the office." — Manitoba Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen
Harvard is taking the opportunity to complete renovation work that would have been harder to do with the building fully occupied.
Moore said more staff are being encouraged to return to the building. In mid-September, Harvard hosted a welcome-back barbecue for 300 people on its surface lot north of the tower.
"We haven’t been able to do any tenant appreciation events for the last year and a half," said Moore. "We are trying to make people feel safe when they do return."
But the struggle between safety and benefits to business continues.
Downtown BIZ estimates more than 2,000 people have lost their jobs from downtown storefront businesses.
That reality will only change if more people return downtown — and True North is working on that beyond the reopening of Canada Life Centre.
"It is our responsibility to encourage more businesses to come back," Litz said. "If you are accountable for the business side of what we do then it is quite necessary to be thinking of ways to get fans and guests comfortable with being downtown again."
That's why the organization is collaborating on new events with its downtown partners to bring more people to the area.
"I can’t say anything more than that," Litz said. "Stay tuned."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.