Core Comeback: Q&A with DVBA’s Jeff Bray on downtown Victoria annual report findings

Shoppers browse stores on Government Street in downtown Victoria BC

The Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) released its annual report on June 15, 2022, describing it as a data-informed snapshot of how businesses fared during a period in which much of the focus was on economic recovery following a pandemic-induced lockdown.

Douglas magazine asked DVBA CEO Jeff Bray for his perspective on the report’s revelations, as well as the ongoing work they’re doing to support their members.

In 2020, the DVBA, along with the rest of the world, was in crisis mode as the economic lockdown forced businesses to close. This report collected data from 2021, when the focus shifted to recovery. Bearing that in mind, was there anything about the report’s findings that surprised you?

Well, our retail vacancy at the end of 2021 was 7.9%, which seems shocking when you compare it to pre-pandemic rates, which hovered around three percent. But if we look back to 2013, when we were coming out of a recession, we were at 13.5%. So if you consider we’re in a global pandemic and recession, we’re in much better shape now than we were then, which is heartening, especially if you compare our retail vacancy rate with Winnipeg’s, which is 30%.

Why do you think that is?

It reveals the resilience of business in our community. We knew suburban business was doing okay because everyone embraced shopping local. And so that focus provided enough revenue, combined with provincial and federal grants and support programs, to keep people going and their staff working.

Not to say there weren’t big challenges, but 45% of our members reported increased revenues from the year before and 35% hired, more staff than the year before. In 2021 we started to see not just recovery, but consumer confidence return.

We’re also fortunate in that we’re diverse, with a certain amount of job stability that you get from being a government town, post secondary institutions, a burgeoning tech industry etc. Even though we experienced commercial vacancy with people working from home, many businesses did not give up their leases, and people are starting to come back to the office.

And though we have challenges with lower tourism numbers and a lack of office workers downtown, we have also seen a downtown population growth of 12.3% in our core, compared with eight percent citywide. And there’s no question that was a significant buffer for our storefronts that so many people live here.

Last year set a record for building permits for Victoria, and there are cranes everywhere, with thousands of units coming to market. That really creates a solid base of potential customers for downtown businesses.

What concerns have businesses shared with you?

Homelessness, street disorder, addictions and mental health are the top challenges facing not only business, but our community in general. It’s affecting everyone. We’ve outlined in the report some of the actions we can take to alleviate some of those challenges and to make sure that we have a safe and welcoming committee for community, including the unhoused, because there are no greater victims of criminal activity than those that are unhoused.

One of the solutions we’d like to see is more support for people with mental health and or addictions, including complex care. And we’d like to see a decentralization of social support services, so they’re not all clustered in a three-block radius downtown – and so that other parts of the region can absorb and support those who need support.

In any crisis, there’s opportunity for change. With businesses shifting through the pandemic, some closing, some responding to new consumer demand, what’s changed in the downtown business landscape?

Firstly, we’re seeing how diverse our membership base is. 53% of our respondents are female led or owned businesses. 18% are owned or led by members of the LGBTQ+ community. We’re seeing a number of new Canadians, first generation new Canadians, now operating businesses, and that’s impressive. When we produced our Meet Downtown videos almost all of them were people of colour, and that’s a positive shift, because it’s where we need to be going.

We are also seeing a surge in unique, locally owned independent stores that you won’t see elsewhere – that you have to come downtown to visit. And an increase in experiential businesses and in hospitality and service-based businesses.

Retailers are also realizing that though online shopping is on the rise, and many consumers may browse and make purchasing decisions online, they still want that brick-and-mortar experience – they want to come into the store and pick out their purchase. And they want to know that the person they’re handing their money to is local – that the business is locally owned.

DVBA 2022 Annual Report At A Glance
Infographic via DVBA.

What about stores like Luxe Home Interiors and Gabriel Ross, who’ve relocated from outside the core to the middle of downtown? What’s driven that decision, do you think?

I think it’s the rise of residential units and the expectation that trend will continue – even if there’s a temporary pandemic-related slowdown. There’s huge interest for people in living and working downtown, and that is coupled with new hotels being built and the recovery of the tourism industry, which in turn drives more engagement and therefore more business growth downtown.

Bike lanes and the closure of parts of Government Street have been controversial topics – what are businesses saying to you about how it’s affecting them?

Yes, that is a hot debate. If you talk to our members, they would generally say that the patios have been great. Some have said that blocking traffic on Government Street means people walk down the middle of the street and don’t pay attention to the businesses there. And for businesses that rely on deliveries, it’s a challenge. So, I think the jury is still out on that. That doesn’t mean that animating Government Street isn’t a good idea – it’s an adjustment, and we’re still figuring it out.

When it comes to bike lanes, we’re certainly seeing a huge uptick in cyclists and pedestrians – and actually, the new Johnson Street bridge has made it really easy for people from Vic West and beyond to access downtown, which has been great for pedestrian traffic. But there are challenges there – increased theft prevents some from parking their bikes downtown, and if you’re driving, you’re frustrated when arterial routes are down to a single lane and backed up a lot of the time.

Looking to the future, is there anything missing from downtown that you’d like to see more of, when it comes to types of businesses in the core?

One of the things we’re working with the City of Victoria on is creating a retail strategy for downtown, conducting a census of what we have, and then assessing what we need. We do know we’d like to see more young families living downtown, so we need more childcare spaces, pediatricians or pediatric dentists and amenities that are more family friendly, whether they’re businesses or public spaces. There’s certainly space in the market for another grocery store too.

To read the full report, click here.