By Bryce Hunt
If you don’t live or work in downtown Winnipeg, you likely haven’t visited it much since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, this is the case for many Manitobans and the lack of foot traffic has significantly damaged the downtown economy.
A Probe Research survey from 2021 found that over half of Winnipeg residents are spending significantly less time downtown than they did before the pandemic.
With fewer people visiting and over 2,000 events cancelled, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ reported that 82 per cent of downtown storefront businesses experienced revenue drops and $139 million was lost in 15 months.
The lost revenue is devastating to businesses, but is only one of the many problems currently in the city’s core.
With the municipal election coming up, the state of downtown will likely be a significant topic of discussion.
Current issues are major ones
Aside from the revenue losses and fewer people coming to the area, the biggest issue with downtown is safety.
Crime numbers dropped 31 per cent during the pandemic, but the downtown areas between Logan Avenue and Portage Avenue still reported more crimes than any other community in Winnipeg.
Some steps have been made to improve downtown’s safety, such as the creation of the Downtown Community Safety Partnership, which provides non-emergency services and increased police presence and patrol.
Another critical decision going forward is what to do about Portage Place mall.
The shopping centre was originally built in the 80s to revitalize the area, but has become vacant of customers, outdated and has spent years up for sale.
Things looked promising for the mall when Starlight Investments proposed a much-needed makeover to the property, but the deal fell through last fall.
The mall takes up just under 440,000 square feet of space on downtown’s busiest street, with no apparent plans of redevelopment anytime soon.
A recent bright spot was the Hudson’s Bay Company transferring ownership of the iconic, but shuttered, HBC building on Portage Avenue to an Indigenous group. The Southern Chiefs’ Organization has plans to refit the heritage building for housing, along with other amenities.
The importance of downtown
Even if you don’t frequent downtown, the fate of the area should concern most Winnipeg residents. Most of the city’s major sports, arts, culture and entertainment venues are located downtown, along with 70 per cent of office spaces. These help support the city’s economy overall.
Natalie Thiesen, Vice President of Tourism at Tourism Winnipeg, said downtown’s tax base supports services across the city.
“For Winnipeg to thrive, downtown needs to thrive,” she said. “If you care about Winnipeg, it’s important for you to care about downtown.”
Downtown pulls in 17 per cent of commercial property tax and 14 per cent of all business tax in the city, according to Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.
Benefits of government support
The incoming municipal government will be a big factor in what comes next for downtown.
The Probe Research survey suggested that Winnipeg residents are worried about the future of downtown and want the government to step in and help.
Downtown Winnipeg BIZ provided a list of things the government can do to improve the situation, including increasing financial support for downtown businesses and making a commitment to supporting people who are homeless or battling addictions.
There are new bright spots for downtown with the recent opening of the True North Square public food/entertainment plaza and ARTIS REIT’s towering apartment building, 300 Main, but these aren’t enough to defeat the looming problems.
Suppose for a moment people’s safety concerns aren’t addressed and the current attractions don’t drive people to the area. What if large blocks of office workers continue to work from home?
The downtown economy will continue to crumble and more businesses will find themselves on the chopping block.