At least 37 downtown businesses have shut down for good since COVID-19 began wreaking havoc with their bottom lines in March 2020.
"Our downtown is the economic driver that benefits all Winnipeggers and all Manitobans, but we are struggling," Kate Fenske, chief executive officer of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, told city council on Thursday.
Fenske said the 37 businesses were in the BIZ’s roughly 250-block zone, which means neighbouring areas may have had additional closures. Three of the businesses closed this year, while 34 closed between March and December.
Among small businesses with one to 20 employees, 60 per cent report making less than half their normal sales, almost one year after pandemic restrictions were first put in place, and at times, forced some to temporarily close.
A loss of customers is among the greatest threats to economic survival. Many of the approximately 70,000 people who would normally work downtown no longer do, Fenske said. That change has devastated many companies, she added.
"Their top challenge for generating income is not enough customers due to many downtown workers still working at home… Only 18 per cent of workers who used to be downtown working every day are still here full time," said Fenske.
She presented the dire outlook to councillors as she lobbied them to approve $36,000 in grants to support a Downtown Winnipeg BIZ strategy to help the city centre recover from COVID-19. CentreVenture Development Corp. has promised $35,000 for the strategy.
"This is about building a foundation. It’s about getting the data to see where we’re at after the last 12 months," said Fenske, who noted the need to address both business losses and the social costs of homelessness, poverty and addictions.
Council voted eight to seven to approve the funding on Thursday, with Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface) absent. However, the vote is considered a loss, since a two-thirds majority is needed for approval, since the motion required waiving policy rules on community incentive grants.
Markus Chambers, Janice Lukes, Ross Eadie, Kevin Klein, Shawn Nason, Jason Schreyer and Devi Sharma voted against the motion, while Mayor Brian Bowman joined Jeff Browaty, Scott Gillingham, Cindy Gilroy, Brian Mayes, John Orlikow, Sherri Rollins and Vivian Santos to support it.
Some of the opposition was linked to how the motion was put before council.
"I’m absolutely supportive of the development of a plan. But what I’m not supportive of, though, is the process used to bring this motion forward… I am concerned about the request to waive criteria. And when criteria is to be waived, I think, in all fairness to council, that a report (should come) forward," said Lukes, noting the motion to executive policy committee did not provide that.
Those who supported the funding argued it's needed immediately. The mayor said council must do all it can to prepare for economic growth and assist businesses now, since it’s not clear how many downtown customers will return once all COVID-19 health restrictions finally end.
"Obviously, business is not going to go back to the norm (it was at) before the pandemic hit. It will change and that could be one of the dynamics that we see… the kinds of businesses, the number of businesses, how big their individual footprint (is), could change," said Bowman.
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.