Manitoba

Downtown Winnipeg staggered by pandemic, faces big challenges in recovering, says report

Tourism, arts, entertainment and hospitality ground to a halt when COVID-19 barged into Winnipeg in March 2020 and though the pandemic's grip is now easing, its impact has left the city's downtown core teetering and facing a long recovery, says a new report.

'We have the data that shows us how devastating the revenue and job losses really are': Downtown BIZ CEO

Downtown storefront businesses, including restaurants and personal services, have lost an average of $2 million a week in gross revenue since the pandemic began. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Tourism, arts, entertainment and hospitality ground to a halt when COVID-19 barged into Winnipeg in March 2020, and though the pandemic's grip is now easing, its impact has left the city's downtown core teetering and facing a long recovery, says a new report.

Downtown storefront businesses, including restaurants and personal services, have lost an average of $2 million a week in gross revenue since the pandemic began — an estimated $139 million in total revenue loss over a 15-month period.

Those are the findings in the report State of Downtown: The impact of the pandemic to date, released Wednesday by a group of local organizations: Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, Exchange District BIZ, West End BIZ, Tourism Winnipeg, and CentreVenture Development Corporation.

When the pandemic shut down much of the economy and sent downtown workers home the dollars stopped coming, said Kate Fenske, CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

"The revenue loss was really quite staggering when we did discover what the numbers were," she told CBC Manitoba's Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

"In the beginning, it was just like a ghost town and last summer we started to see traffic pick up. We thought we might be out of the woods and then the third wave hit in the fall.

"This report confirms the struggles business owners have been experiencing and now we have the data that shows us how devastating the revenue and job losses really are."

Some 2,200 events were held downtown in 2019, resulting in 6.8 million visits. That number was cut drastically as over 75 per cent of events were cancelled in 2020.

The cancellation and postponement of more than 100 national and international business conferences and large-scale events resulted in a loss of at least 56,000 people going downtown, as well as 86,000 room nights at hotels and more than $59 million in expected spending, the report states.

Transit ridership in downtown has dropped more than 60 per cent and on-street paid parking has fallen by 50 per cent.

Only 20 per cent of the approximately 70,000 people who work in downtown full time are currently in those offices and businesses.

That doesn't include the 30,000-plus students and staff at the University of Winnipeg, Red River College and Robertson College who shifted to remote learning and are not expected back on the campuses in fall, Fenske said.

"Students are really what give downtown such a vibrancy, you know. We're definitely really missing it right now," she said.

Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, says the city needs a major change to diversify the city's urban centre with parks, patios and other places people want to be. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Remaining capacity restrictions for indoor venues over the coming months and the delayed return of national and international meetings and conferences until 2022 will continue to put a strain on downtown organizations and businesses, the report states.

"That's probably the sector that's going to take the longest to bounce back," Fenske said.

And a weak convention sector has a damaging rippled effect as things that benefit — hotels, museums, galleries and restaurants — are located downtown, she noted.

Social challenges exacerbated

The stagnation of downtown's pulse has been heartbreaking to see, Fenske added.

"It's really been a roller-coaster ride, especially for business owners and for the community organizations that are trying to support individuals in the community," she said.

The shutdown of public spaces, such as food courts and libraries, as well as locked stairwells and shuttered parkades, created challenges for many who live on the streets. They struggled to find drinking water, places to sleep, public washrooms, and access safe spaces.

The recovery of downtown is essential for the entire city, the report states. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"The pandemic has exacerbated long-standing challenges in our community and has made social issues more visible," the report states.

"In discussions with social service agencies and community organizations working the frontlines, it is clear the non-profit sector is strained trying to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals downtown."

With less foot traffic downtown, transit shelters became the common place for refuge and gatherings for those facing homelessness. Hours spent cleaning transit shelters skyrocketed and the litter collected tripled in less than a year, according to the report.

While the pandemic exacerbated those long-standing challenges, it has also presented an opportunity to address them.

Access to basic rights like public washrooms, drinking water and sanitization are critical and housing and reconciliation are top priorities, the report states.

"There is an opportunity to lead change through collaborative efforts, but it will take a strong commitment from all levels of government and all sectors."

The recovery of downtown is essential for the entire city, according to the report.

Although downtown makes up less than one per cent of Winnipeg's total land area, it accounts for approximately 17 per cent of the commercial property tax base in the city and about 14 per cent of the the business tax base.

"The revenue that downtown generates actually support services and amenities that everyone enjoys throughout the city. So, for example, if property values drop significantly downtown, that money is going to have to be picked up elsewhere," Fenske said. 

A downtown recovery working group, involving community organizations and community and business leaders, is being put together to examine the priorities for the next three years "to put us on the right track," she said.

That recovery strategy will be released in the fall but there are things Winnipeggers can do right now to help, Fenske said. That is, get vaccinated.

"We need to hit those vaccine targets so we can increase capacity so businesses have a fighting chance," Fenske said, also urging people to visit and support the shops and attractions that are beginning to reopen.

People are also invited to give input in the future of downtown by taking a recovery survey

In terms of government support, Fenske lauded things like one-hour free parking to encourage people to return to the core. But much larger changes must be made, such as boosting residential growth.

"I don't think we can rely on downtown workers solely to create the vibrancy and the density. Our downtown was often Monday to Friday, nine-to-five," she said, adding a plan is needed to make evenings and weekends just as lively.

That requires diversifying downtown by creating an urban centre with parks and patios and places people want to be.

"I think there's a real thirst for that. So there's an opportunity here," Fenske said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

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