AS Winnipeg’s downtown reels from the economic blows of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city is considering ways to help assist its recovery.
A new "state of downtown" report notes a "mass exodus" of employees left the city centre to work from home due to COVID-19 restrictions. Of the 70,000 people who worked in the area before the pandemic, only about 20 per cent are now back working at their original offices full time, according to the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone.
Since businesses in the area rely largely on downtown-based workers as primary customers, they suffered an estimated $139-million revenue loss. In addition, more than 2,000 downtown workers lost their jobs.
"Without a doubt, it’s alarming. The number of businesses that have left us entirely, the losses incurred, it’s huge," said Coun. Jeff Browaty, innovation and economic development committee chairman. "I knew it was going to be bad, but this is worse than I expected."
Browaty said Wednesday he’s hopeful Winnipeg can soon restore its conference-sector business, which would boost revenues at the downtown convention centre, as well as restaurants and retail stores. The North Kildonan councillor said he expects Manitoba’s relatively high vaccination numbers should help the city promote itself as a safe travel destination.
"We’ve got some of the best vaccination rates. Let’s sell that, let’s make that a Winnipeg advantage."
As of Wednesday, 77.9 per cent of eligible Manitobans had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 63.1 per cent had two doses, according to the provincial online dashboard.
The new report urges governments to assist downtown recovery by: continuing one-hour free parking and curbside pickup zones; providing access to public washrooms; increasing financial support for businesses that face the slowest recovery; and helping ensure vulnerable Winnipeggers (such as those who are homeless) receive supports, among other calls to action.
Browaty said free parking may be a reasonable incentive to consider, though the City of Winnipeg can’t solely fund all of those objectives, due to its own pandemic losses.
"We are strapped, the cupboard’s pretty bare," he said.
Coun. Scott Gillingham, finance committee chairman, said it’s not yet clear how soon the downtown could rebound from its "devastating losses."
However, Gillingham said a Winnipeg economic recovery plan should be ready for council’s consideration this fall.
"The city has a role to play with other levels of government and other agencies to create the environment that will encourage and ensure that recovery," he said.
Meanwhile, some expect many area employees will soon return.
Tom Thiessen, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Manitoba, said he’s heard from businesses beginning to move staff back downtown or which plan to do so by the fall.
"There’s collaboration from teammates that’s missed and can’t be replicated on a Zoom call or a Microsoft Teams call, as hard as people try," said Thiessen.
Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses may have yet to decide on whether staff will return to downtown offices or stay home.
"Right now, we’re still not out of (the pandemic), so to make firm plans now when you don’t know if there is going to be a fourth wave, (is difficult). There’s still uncertainty."
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.