Economic indicators show life returning to downtown Victoria, says city, business groups

Reports of the death of downtown Victoria are unfounded, and the city and its business organizations are pumping out the data to prove it.

While there’s no question the pandemic has decimated retail, hospitality and tourism businesses and disrupted pretty much everyone else, the city is adamant there is light at the end of the economic tunnel.

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In a bid to lift hopes and tackle the perception that the downtown is an unsafe, no-go zone, the city, Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Victoria Business Association have put together an economic dashboard.

“There’s been a lot of unnecessarily negative chatter about downtown,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “We wanted to see what was actually happening. What we see is optimism. We see renewed confidence in Victoria and renewed confidence downtown, and cautious optimism about what Victoria’s recovery will be like.

“The numbers tell a different story than some of the chatter.”

The city looked at various economic indicators in February, March and April of this year and compared them to 2020 and 2019.

What it found included a few surprises. The number of new business licences approved in that three-month period in 2021, for example, was 620, compared with 404 last year and 600 in 2019.

There were 394 building-permit applications in that period this year, compared with 331 in 2020 and 413 in 2019, and the value of those permits this year was $130.1 million, up from $47.6 million last year and $53 million in 2019.

There were also some signs of recovery in the data, with parking transactions increasing in 2021 compared with the same time in 2020, although still off 2019 numbers, and hotel occupancy rebounding slightly in 2021 from a disastrous 2020, but nowhere near 2019 numbers.

On the flip side, this spring has seen a drop in the number of pedestrians downtown.

The total pedestrians counted in that three-month period this year was 1.95 million, down from 2.75 million last year and 4.7 million in 2019, while the daily average of pedestrian counts from all counters in 2021 was 65,634, down from 93,805 last year and way off the 156,482 in 2019.

Along Government Street, the daily average pedestrian count fell to 16,554 this year, from 32,363 in 2020 and 53,065 in 2019.

But Helps maintains the numbers, including a slight increase in bicycle traffic this year compared with both 2020 and 2019, provide reason for optimism.

“There are thousands of people every day coming downtown,” she said, noting as office workers return to work and tourists start coming to town, the area will begin to feel more vibrant and safer. “People on the street make a big difference.”

Helps admits there is still work to be done on perceptions of public safety.

Complex-care housing for people who have difficulty retaining housing because of behavioural problems and tend to cause disruptions in the city centre is “the key missing piece in every downtown in B.C.,” said Helps, who hopes the province is able to provide that piece.

Bruce Williams, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce, said the idea behind the dashboard is to reassure people that the optimism they are starting to feel as the province recovers is based on reality.

“We are actually getting there,” he said. “It’s something to put people’s minds at ease and clears up some misconceptions and reassures that we are getting better and there’s a lot more to come”

The city plans to release data on the indicators quarterly over the next few years to track Victoria’s economic recovery.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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