A strategy to help Winnipeg’s downtown recover from the brutal economic blow of COVID-19 is on the way after all, despite city council rejecting a proposal to fund it.
Kate Fenske, chief executive officer of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, said a new plan has been sorted out to ensure work can begin on Monday.
Fenske said CentreVenture Development Corp. has agreed to double funding to $70,000, while the BIZ will provide $30,000 of in-kind funding, primarily through staff hours.
"We’re moving forward," she said.
Fenske said at least 37 downtown businesses have closed since COVID-19 cases began appearing in Winnipeg.
"The pandemic has not ended, there’s still restrictions and it is a major challenge… We know that it’s not going to be (just) flipping the switch and everything’s going to be OK again," said Fenske.
City council rejected a proposal to provide $36,000 to support the recovery strategy.
Fenske said CentreVenture’s increased contribution, which was confirmed Friday, will allow the project to go ahead. She expects further funding will be needed, though, since the strategy could cost $150,000 or more to complete over the next 12 months.
Since March 2020, permanent downtown closures have included storefronts of Coles, Second Cup, Staples and OPA! Of Greece. The Bay, Mon Ami Louis, Garrick Centre and three Starbucks have also shut down, the BIZ said.
Fenske said finding new uses for the Bay building and finalizing a proposed $400-million redevelopment of Portage Place are key priorities, due to the sheer size of those structures.
As many Winnipeggers continue to work from home, companies will be forced to find new customers, she said.
"We know that downtown businesses cannot rely solely on downtown workers as their primary customer base. We do anticipate downtown to become busy again, to be vibrant… but I think it’s going to look a little bit different," said Fenske.
Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said businesses throughout the city have been hurt by the pandemic. While the chamber doesn’t track business closures, he expects there could be several bankruptcies in the first half of this year.
"People are wanting to fight as long as they can. We’re seeing significant increases in debt load within the business community. People are leveraging all sources of financing that they can find, personal friends, family, institutional lenders and otherwise," said Remillard.
He said a focus on downtown companies would help the entire city.
"Our downtown (had) reached a really good point and, by no fault of its own, (is facing) COVID. It does represent a potential threat to undermine all the good momentum that we’ve had since the ’90s," said Remillard. "It is in every Winnipegger’s interest to see a thriving downtown."
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.