After foot traffic plummeted two years ago due to COVID-19, new data shows Winnipeg’s downtown is gradually attracting more visitors.

After foot traffic plummeted two years ago due to COVID-19, new data shows Winnipeg’s downtown is gradually attracting more visitors.

However, local businesses hurt by pandemic closures and public health restrictions still believe the area is a long way from a full economic recovery.

"I’m going to say it’s not as hard as it was when the pandemic first… happened, but I am definitely feeling sort of an emotional exhaustion. I do think it’s been very hard," said Élise Page, co-owner of Fête Ice Cream & Coffee at 300 Assiniboine Ave. "There’s a lot of data that’s out there that says a lot of people have moved to remote working, (probably) forever."

Page said her store has seen "a slight improvement" in daily coffee sales in recent weeks, with some regulars returning on a less frequent basis than in the past.

"People aren’t coming on their lunch break and things like that. It’s just less downtown traffic altogether," she said.

Page is optimistic the end of nearly all public health orders will help boost sales soon and is "crossing her fingers" warmer weather will also help in the near future.

At this point, there does appear to be some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for downtown Winnipeg businesses.

The number of daily average visits to the downtown rose from 87,661 for the week ending Jan. 9 to 124,573 on the week ending April 3, according to data gathered by the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone. The data was extrapolated from cellphones located within the BIZ boundaries.

Historical data taken from 2021 shows the average number of visits has also risen on a monthly basis since last year. For example, the number of average daily visits was about 30 per cent higher in March 2022 than March 2021.

Phil Klein, owner of Bagelsmith downtown, says he understands the desire for employees to work from home, at least on a part-time basis, but “flex time” creates unpredictable demand for businesses. (JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Phil Klein, owner of Bagelsmith downtown, says he understands the desire for employees to work from home, at least on a part-time basis, but “flex time” creates unpredictable demand for businesses. (JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Meanwhile, 28 per cent of pre-pandemic downtown workers are now once again working in the city centre full-time, with another 19 per cent splitting work days between the office and home, according to a survey conducted for the BIZ in March.

About 70,000 office staff worked exclusively downtown prior to the pandemic.

Over the past month, the BIZ also asked 24 employers, who represent 10,000 downtown employees, for an update on where staff are working. About 18 per cent of those who responded said employees are back in the office full time, while 39 per cent said staff work a mix of home and office hours.

The BIZ said all of those surveyed expected to bring back employees at least part-time in the future.

Despite those plans, the numbers show a large majority of office workers, the traditional clientele for downtown businesses, has still not returned to the city centre full-time.

Phil Klein, owner of Bagelsmith at 185 Carlton St., said he understands the desire for employees to work from home, at least on a part-time basis, but "flex time" creates unpredictable demand for businesses.

"Any kind of normalcy for us would be lovely at this point. (For) myself, my staff, it’s been an exhausting time to open a business downtown. There’s been no consistency, traffic just varies widely from day to day," said Klein, who opened Bagelsmith in October 2020.

While the bagel shop enjoyed a roughly 10 to 15 per cent boost in sales in recent weeks, he said it follows a "terrible" January and February, when sales were down about 35 per cent to 50 per cent from the previous year.

"After Omicron hit, I think things got worse for downtown. We also saw traffic decrease pretty much the day the trucker convoy started, too. So there’s a lot of variables that have impacted us negatively downtown… including weather being terrible," said Klein.

The head of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ said the latest data indicates a gradual economic recovery is underway, though it could still take a couple of years to reach pre-pandemic revenues.

Kate Fenske, chief executive officer of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, says the latest data indicates a gradual economic recovery is underway, though it could still take a couple of years to reach pre-pandemic revenues.(MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Kate Fenske, chief executive officer of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, says the latest data indicates a gradual economic recovery is underway, though it could still take a couple of years to reach pre-pandemic revenues.(MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

"People in the beginning were wondering what’s going to happen downtown, can downtown survive? I think this data shows that there is a commitment to downtown, that people are coming back, but that we all need to work together to make sure we support it and that the businesses still here can hang on through this recovery period," said chief executive officer Kate Fenske.

Fenske said the return of large events and ongoing development in the area also bode well. "The momentum is still there, so now we just really need the people."

She is urging the City of Winnipeg to help boost the recovery by reinstating one hour of free parking at downtown meters and curbside pickup zones that made the area cheaper for visitors earlier in the pandemic. Both of those pandemic relief measures ended Dec. 31.

Fenske also urged the city to devote a portion of downtown parking revenues to infrastructure improvements within the area.

Coun. Sherri Rollins, whose ward includes parts of the downtown, said the City of Winnipeg should explore those options.

"Definitely, the parking and the loading zones (were) really key (during the pandemic)… That really worked well and we do really need to keep up the momentum," said Rollins.

The Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry councillor said it would be tougher to share parking revenue, which plummeted during the pandemic, though that could be considered in the longer term.

"Currently, there is (very little) revenue to speak of to redistribute."

The Probe Research workforce survey shares responses from a random and representative sample of 600 Winnipeg adults March 9-21, who completed the survey online. About 200 members of that group were downtown workers who provided insight on current work locations.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

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.