After Manitoba emerged from its first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Kelly Oxelgren held down every job at her downtown Winnipeg cafe for 18 months.
Forced to lay off staff amid a drop in business, Oxelgren was the waitress, cook, cleaner and everything else at 2 Kelly’s Cafe.
"I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I had to do it by myself because I wouldn’t have had a restaurant to come back to if I didn’t," she said.
All her hard work has paid off — her restaurant has survived, she has rehired one employee and she is hoping to see more customers as Manitoba emerges from its latest COVID wave and office workers slowly return downtown.
Like many business owners, she’s looking to all levels of government for more help, be it financial relief or incentives to lure wallets to the city’s core.
The federal government announced $2.5 million in funding Wednesday for projects that help downtown businesses and residents.
“I feel like everything is going to come back, but it’s going to take a little bit of time.” – Kelly Oxelgren, restaurant owner
Small-business owners welcomed the cash, but said a lot more work needs to be done to keep downtown alive. What they really want to see is people returning to the area in greater numbers.
"I feel like everything is going to come back, but it’s going to take a little bit of time," said Oxelgren, whose cafe is located in the Fort Garry Place Mall. "(The struggle) is not over for downtown businesses."
Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone’s Connect Grant, which links small businesses in need of help to those who can provide it, has received $250,000 in federal funding.
Launched during the pandemic, the program matched Oxelgren with Tandem Collaborative, a marketing firm helping her to boost her social media presence.
Like Oxelgren, Daniel Abreham, owner of Pastry Castle at 260 Edmonton St., is eager to see more activity downtown. His business has relied on a federal loan, which he is now paying back.
"We’ve suffered a lot," he said. "What we need is… everybody to come back to work."
James Barclay, owner of James Barclay Spa and Salon at 399 Graham Ave., relies on customers who travel from other parts of the city. COVID has put off some from making the trip, he said.
”We’ve suffered a lot... What we need is… everybody to come back to work.” – Daniel Abreham
Barclay has had to dip into savings to keep his business going. He tried to obtain a rent subsidy from Ottawa, but didn’t qualify because his losses weren’t higher than they already are, he said.
"It seemed to be totally unfair," he said.
Barring another rise in COVID cases, he believes it will be another year before his spa and salon begin to recover.
"We’re struggling and we’re still going to be struggling until people come back," he said.
Before the pandemic, about 70,000 people worked downtown, according to Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. An up-to-date total was not available.
Sixty-nine businesses within its boundaries have closed during the pandemic. Others have moved to other neighbourhoods.
But there have been gains, as well. Forty businesses have opened, and 300 Main, a 42-storey apartment tower and Winnipeg’s tallest building, will soon welcome its first tenants.
And an announcement on the future of the vacant heritage building once home to The Bay’s flagship store could happen soon.
Kate Fenske, CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, said more office workers are expected to return when winter finally takes its leave.
Many are being offered flexible work schedules that split their time between office and home, she said.
Wawanesa Insurance, which is building its new headquarters at Carlton Street and Graham Avenue, began a phased return Monday, and will give 90 per cent of its employees the freedom to choose where they want to work, a spokesman said.
Manitoba Public Insurance and Bell MTS also plan to offer flexibility to their staff.
The city has approved a two-year COVID recovery plan to trigger downtown growth and fund things such as affordable housing. It includes $20 million in the 2022 budget.
Nine organizations and companies will or have already benefited from the federal funding announced Wednesday by Winnipeg Liberal MP Dan Vandal, the minister responsible for Prairies Economic Development Canada.
Ottawa will monitor whether further financial aid is needed downtown, he said.
The most expensive project is a $500,000 bike lane connecting West Broadway to downtown, which was completed last fall. That money was given to the city, which also received $177,000 to create a community meeting space at the Millennium Library.
RRC Polytech is using $475,000 to set up a public green space for events such as farmers’ markets, while $420,235 will go towards outdoor gathering spaces at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Qaumajuq museum.
More than $277,000 given to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce will expand a program that helps small- and medium-sized businesses affected by the pandemic.
The RBC Convention Centre is spending $200,000 in federal cash to upgrade digital systems for virtual, livestream and hybrid events.
A total of $150,000 is going to Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network Inc. to build new children’s play structures in Central Park.
The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce received $98,500 to develop two digital platforms linking businesses and consumers.
Nearly $40,000 has been given to the West Broadway Development Corp. for an Indigenous permaculture community garden and teaching space.
The funding is being provided through the Canada Community Revitalization, COVID-19 Tourism Relief and Regional Relief and Recovery programs.