Lisa Helps: Build Back Victoria: Eat, drink and shop locally

A commentary by the mayor of Victoria.

At the beginning of the year, I was filled with boundless hope for what the year had in store for Victoria. We had close to the lowest unemployment in the country and downtown retail vacancies were the lowest they had been in five years. Our economy was booming.

This allowed council greater flexibility to invest in many of the things – parks and public spaces, equity, climate change, and sustainability initiatives – that truly make Victoria a shining light across the world. Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In addition to the number of challenges this year has brought Victoria and cities across the country, our city’s small business sector has been hit very hard with reduced revenues and significant staff layoffs. Many of us know residents who are directly affected, as some businesses were told to close, and many others did so voluntarily.

In response, the city developed Victoria 3.0. This is an action plan focused on recovering from the pandemic, re-inventing and diversifying our economy to create long-term economic resilience, and seizing the $3 trillion global economic opportunity presented by the ocean and marine sector.

We’ve learned that when tourists aren’t able to visit (we look forward to welcoming them back!) we need a more diverse economic base and more compelling story to tell about all our region has to offer beyond being a great place to visit.

So when the province began allowing businesses to re-open, we were ready with Victoria 3.0. Key immediate actions include creating opportunities for restaurants and retailers to do business in public spaces and creating more options for pedestrians downtown and in village centres to meet physical distancing requirements.

Council also asked staff to be bold, creative, move quickly and ensure a “bureaucracy light” approach so business could also move quickly, expand to the outdoors and bring back employees.

It was out of these collaborative efforts between council, city staff and business owners that Build Back Victoria was born. Staff brought forward a suite of initiatives that allow businesses to temporarily expand their operating capacity into parks, sidewalks, streets, boulevards in line with public health recommendations, while maintaining the accessibility and livability of streets and sidewalks.

Throughout the summer, more than 100 businesses took advantage of the program and there are currently 77 active permits. Build Back Victoria has been widely successful. Local businesses were able to quickly respond and created dozens of new waiting areas, seating, and patios in time for the summer.

This new opportunity for businesses provided increased vibrancy and economic activity downtown and in a number of the village centres, while allowing for necessary physical distancing.

Biking and walking around town and visiting the villages throughout the city, I’ve been delighted to see so much vitality. Residents and visitors alike have been enjoying public spaces and providing much needed economic stimulus to our businesses.

This week council unanimously approved an extension of the program to align with the province’s liquor licences expansion for service areas, which expires Oct. 31, 2021. The extension also included some modifications to reflect the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

For example, new and renewed applications will need to reflect additional accessibility guidance and requirements, updated insurance requirements and processes, and requirements that will support “winterization” of patios and parklet structures. This year-long extension will give our businesses the certainty to plan and invest where needed and to stay afloat until the pandemic is behind us.

Council continues to focus on our big picture priorities. Before we were embroiled in a global health crisis, we were wrestling with a climate and housing crisis. These have not fallen off the radar and we continue to work on our climate leadership plan, housing strategy, and future-oriented economic development.

But right now, our friends and neighbours that run and work for the businesses in our community need our help. The Build Back Victoria program is the city’s best foot forward to give businesses the tools to survive and hopefully to thrive well into the future.

It is the efforts and tenacity of our small business owners that have helped to restore the hope I have in the future for our city.

Our economy is local now more than ever, so I encourage all Victoria residents to continue to eat, drink and shop locally throughout the winter months and beyond.

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