As the Omicron variant deals yet another COVID-19 pandemic-related blow to the local economy, efforts to attract Winnipeggers to the downtown have been widely sacrificed.
"I had hoped that I would be at city hall this morning, presenting to you (in-person), but once again our community is facing more challenges as a result of the Omicron variant. It’s another setback for our businesses, our attractions and our downtown, keeping people out of offices and (reducing) capacities for businesses," Dayna Spiring, president and chief executive officer of Economic Development Winnipeg, told council’s innovation and economic development committee by a video feed Monday.
During what was slated as a "post-pandemic" recovery update, Spiring noted efforts to get remote workers back into downtown office spaces, which would finally restore the typical customer base for many of the area’s businesses, have again been thwarted by work-from-home directives.
However, other work to boost the financial recovery from the novel coronavirus continues, including global recruitment efforts to boost the local talent pool.
Economic Development Winnipeg has embarked on virtual "recruitment missions" in Los Angeles and Hong Kong that will continue into March, with further ones planned for Ukraine, Argentina, France and the United Kingdom later this year, said Spiring.
"We know all companies in all sectors of our diverse economy are looking for talent. It’s a war for talent even in the middle of a pandemic."
She said skilled workers are especially needed to support growth in the technology and film sectors. "We see more options in a variety of roles that didn’t even exist five years ago."
Spiring stressed work is also needed to help Winnipeg compete against other municipalities to attract new development. She welcomed a city commitment to put aside $20 million for future water and sewer services to help develop CentrePort Canada lands.
"The pandemic has put tremendous financial pressure on the city, so we need to look at the most pressing issues now… CentrePort needs to be serviced quickly or we will continue to fall behind (other areas)," said Spiring.
Despite the many challenges ahead, she said a few upcoming events should help jump-start the economic recovery.
"We have worked hard at our office to book (events) and rebook and, in some cases rebook again… as restrictions have tightened or loosened," said Spiring.
If public health orders allow, that work is expected to pay off with a lumber association event that would attract 2,200 people and fill 900 hotel rooms in March, followed by a public service alliance convention expected to bring another 1,000 to Winnipeg in May.
Coun. Jeff Browaty, chairman of the economic development committee, said he shares both the concern and optimism noted in the update.
"We still (see) challenges in our downtown. And (corporations), including the City of Winnipeg, continuing to push remote work as much as possible at the moment, just trying to provide relief (for) our front-line workers in the health-care system. We’re coming up on two years into this and people are tired and frustrated," said Browaty.
"But I’m remaining optimistic. I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing in some parts of the world (reports of plateauing Omicron numbers) and hope that that’s our future here, too."
The North Kildonan councillor agreed attracting more skilled workers and providing city services to support future developments should be key priorities in Winnipeg’s economic recovery.
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.