Kate Fenske knew Winnipeg’s downtown was hit hard by the pandemic. It was something made overtly obvious to the executive director of the Downtown BIZ throughout the past 16 months, in conversations with shopkeepers, real estate professionals and average people strolling down Portage Avenue, as well as by what she saw: emptier sidewalks, closed-up storefronts and a preponderance of people shut out of indoor public spaces with nowhere else to go.
It was mostly anecdotal, individual examples that made it all too clear however long it took for other parts of the city to recover from the toll of COVID-19, the downtown would take longer.
What was missing were the numbers, and as Fenske long suspected, they are not good.
In a report released today by the Downtown Business Improvement Zone, the statistics tell a sobering story of the pandemic’s impact on all facets of the downtown over the course of 16 months.
More than 2,000 people — roughly 40 per cent of those working at downtown stores — lost their jobs; 82 per cent of all those storefronts had decreased revenues, leading to an estimated $139 million in revenue loss; Transit ridership downtown was down by more than 60 per cent, with foot traffic taking a similar hit; at 7.5 per cent, the rate of apartment vacancy was nearly twice the citywide rate; more than 100 conferences were cancelled, leading to a loss of nearly 90,000 room nights for the downtown hotel industry, which is mostly operating at capacity levels hovering at about 10 per cent.
"We are anywhere from five to 10 per cent occupancy," said Paul Kostas, an industry veteran who owns the 127-room Humphry Inn & Suites on Main Street. "It is definitely a struggle. But that is the way it is."
Meanwhile, closures to free public spaces and hangouts such as libraries and malls forced vulnerable residents to find space on the street, highlighting and exacerbating social inequities related to housing and free recreation availability downtown that existed long before the first shutdown in March 2020.
"Anecdotally, we understood there was a strain," said Fenske, who added downtowns across North America are facing a similarly daunting recuperation. Individual sectors knew what was ailing them, but that data is compiled in the report, showing what Fenske calls a "disproportionate impact" on Winnipeg’s downtown, which comprises less than one per cent of the city’s total land area but an outsize importance in urban life.
As the central business district, that didn’t come as a surprise, she said. Into the downtown’s small footprint is squeezed 17 per cent of the city’s commercial property tax base and 70 per cent of all office space, which normally draws upwards of 70,000 workers to the area on a daily basis. As of June, only 14,000 had returned, deepening the business struggles of downtown storefronts.
"Almost all of our 1,000-plus employees have been working from home since the start of the pandemic," Cathy Pickard, a vice-president at Wawanesa Insurance, said in the report. The company is committed to working in a "thriving" downtown, she said, but even so, workers will be welcomed back in phases; many major employers are taking a similar approach.
A June 2021 poll cited in the report found 80 per cent of city residents were spending less money than usual downtown. Meanwhile, a community of roughly 30,000 students and staff at downtown educational facilities went online, contributing more to those deficits while also significantly decreasing Transit ridership and parking demand.
Outside of the downtown, investment in real estate development on both the commercial and residential sides has surged, evidenced by a rising declared average value of building permit applications on a monthly basis so far in 2021. Inside downtown, that average value is trending in the opposite direction, indicating a lagging recovery in Fenske’s view.
"There’s no easy formula, but this shows downtown is going to be slower to recover," she said, adding that incentives will be needed to spur growth, particularly when it comes to housing, which consultations with community organizations such as Main Street Project indicated was of vital concern.
Fenske said key concerns for community organizations, and many stakeholders in the business community, were housing and reconciliation initiatives with Indigenous communities, as well as access to social services and basic human rights such as public washrooms, sanitation, cooling and warming stations and safe shelter.
Though those matters were always of concern, Fenske said, the pandemic made them more pressing than ever, as well as more visible: restricted access to safe public spaces "left the street as the only option," the report noted, and "with less foot-traffic downtown, transit shelters became a common place for refuge and gatherings. Hours spent cleaning transit shelters skyrocketed and the litter collected tripled in less than a year."
Meanwhile, the capacity and engagement at overnight emergency shelters increased in 2020, while community organizations assembled new units dedicated to street outreach and expanded existing ones to meet the growing need for support.
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However, Fenske and the report say, there is no correlation between this increased need for outreach or the visible evidence of poverty on the prevalence of crime. In reality, city statistics showed a 31 per cent decrease in crime in the downtown, defying what the report calls a "widespread social stigma surrounding homelessness, mental health and substance use."
Main Street Project executive director Jamil Mahmoud said the pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the existing social issues organizations like his have been addressing for years, and that through collaboration, those organizations have led successful pandemic responses.
"Our hope is that the takeaway from these successes is that the needs of our community highlighted throughout the pandemic, such as investing in essential services that folks are relying on to be stable, are supported long-term so that we don’t have to panic to create life-saving resources our sector has been requesting for years," Mahmood said, adding that MSP was pleased to be included in the report and that he hopes real action comes out of it.
"The need for housing, detox, addiction supports, shelter and more are areas we need the whole city to be working on together," Mahmoud said. "It will take community effort."
Ben Waldman Reporter
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
$2 million: the average weekly loss in gross revenue for downtown storefront businesses since the pandemic began, or an estimated $139 million in total revenue loss
2,000: the approximate number of people who have lost their jobs working at downtown storefront businesses
20 per cent: The percentage of workers, or 14,000, who have returned to work full time downtown. Approximately 70,000 worked downtown pre-pandemic
1.5 million square feet: the amount of office space available for lease in the first quarter of 2021, as a result of the dramatic shift to remote work
2,000: the number of arts, culture, sports and entertainment events that have been cancelled since the pandemic began
11 per cent: the downtown hotel occupancy rate in the first quarter of the year
100: the number of national and international conferences and large-scale events that were cancelled or postponed, resulting in the loss of 56,000 people coming downtown, 86,000 hotel room nights and more than $59 million in direct expenditures downtown
60 per cent: the drop in downtown transit ridership
31 per cent: the decrease in crime reported downtown during the pandemic
— source: State of Downtown report
Report’s calls to action:
The release of the State of Downtown report marks the beginning of the development of a long-term recovery strategy. While that strategy’s working group consists mostly of business and city leadership, Downtown BIZ executive director Kate Fenske said consultation with social organizations will occur frequently throughout the recovery process. A full plan is anticipated to be released in the fall.
Until then, the report issues calls to action to individuals, community organizations and the private sector, and all levels of government. No. 1 for individuals is the most important: Get vaccinated. Also, spend time downtown, whether volunteering, supporting businesses, or attending galleries and cultural events. People can also fill out a downtown recovery survey through the BIZ as of Wednesday.
For community organizations and the private sector, the calls to action include: help clean and beautify downtown, activate vacant windows, hold a downtown community clothing drive, enhance outdoor spaces, provide opportunities for Indigenous ceremonies and celebrations, and provide safe events to draw people downtown.
At the government level: work together in the best interest of citizens, make a commitment to support vulnerable individuals, including those experiencing homelessness and those who need access to addictions and mental health services, support temporary street closures for programming, support cooling and warming stations, extend free parking periods, increase financial support for businesses, and provide access to public washrooms.
Some of the call to actions are already happening. As of Tuesday, 62 per cent of all eligible Manitobans had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine; some people have begun returning to movie theatres downtown or flocking to restaurants and patios; Fenske said many private sector groups are devising partnerships with community organizations to enact social change downtown; the city extended its complimentary hour of weekday parking and two hours of Saturday parking through September; and work is now underway on the much-needed public washroom project at Main Street and Henry Avenue.
Fenske said while those developments are great, more can and should be doneto set the downtown and the people who use it up for success as it recovers. “It’s a matter of scaling that up,” she said.
“And we aren’t just trying to get back to February 2020. There’s a lot more we can do in our city.”