Over the last 18 months, Victoria’s downtown absorbed a flurry of economic body blows, leaving some businesses no choice but to shut their doors, but the core remains a resilient and vibrant city centre.
That’s what the Downtown Victoria Business Association is hoping people take away from its annual report on the downtown core, released Wednesday.
Jeff Bray, executive director of the association, said while the city centre still has problems, it remains the envy of many others.
Bray said the annual report, established in 2019 to provide a snapshot of the core so the association can track trends, work to address issues and showcase highlights, paints a picture of a diverse retail centre that has bounced back well from the global pandemic.
“For the public, it’s to remind people we have one of the best mid-sized downtowns in North America — yes, we have issues, but people travel from around the world to come here,” he said — both tourists and those who like it so much they decide to make it their home.
However, Bray said he hopes politicians will see within the report’s 18 pages that those on the front lines — business owners and staff — have concerns they’d like the city to address.
As in previous reports, business owners cite safety and security as one of their chief concerns. The survey indicated 62 per cent spent more in 2020 on security measures and crime reduction than they did in 2019.
“We need adequate policing resources and we need to have complex care to deal with those who are struggling the most with mental health and addiction issues,” said Bray.
Factor in the perception that parking is a problem downtown and concerns about the overall cleanliness of the place and Bray said business owners are less satisfied with the core again this year.
Bray noted it’s the third straight year business owners have given the downtown a worse letter grade when asked how they view being downtown.
This year, the downtown got a B, C+ or C from 52 per cent of respondents, and 18 per cent gave it either a D or F, while 31.8 per cent gave it a B+ or better. The number of businesses giving the downtown a D or F grade has more than doubled since 2018.
“It’s a subtle change but we think it’s significant,” he said. “And it’s something we think the city needs to pay attention to.”
At the same time the report said there is reason for optimism in the area, with some indications the core has weathered the pandemic relatively well and is already on the rebound.
“Through COVID, businesses saw big declines in revenue but the [relief] programs by and large seem to have worked and most have been able to survive,” said Bray.
The report noted the number of new business licenses declined by 18.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, but the number of renewals increased by 2.4 per cent. The overall number of businesses licences issued in Victoria slipped just 1.5 per cent in that time.
Bray said it is heartening to see the drop was relatively slight and may indicate a strong economy and a belief in a healthy return.
Retail vacancy was also up a bit as a result of some closures, but the increase in vacant space was not as bad as had been expected. The downtown retail vacancy rate increased from 3.1 per cent in 2019 to 6.4 per cent in 2020. The office vacancy rate downtown is now 7.1 per cent, up from 4.7 per cent in 2019.
“When you come through a global pandemic and global recession and go from three to six per cent, that is a significant [good sign],” said Bray.
He also noted the survey revealed a more diverse downtown, with 54.5 per cent of businesses owned by women and 9.4 per cent by those who identify as LGBTQ2S+.
“We had a sense there was tremendous diversity in small and medium-sized businesses, but we had no data,” he said. “We think this is a good-news story and a sign of a healthy downtown — when you have diversity of offerings, diversity of owners, and diversity of ages, ethnicities, different sexual orientations, new Canadians and old Canadians. That is a healthy sub eco-system downtown.”