Downtown Winnipeg seeing slow recovery, foot traffic about 1/2 of pre-pandemic level: study

In downtown Winnipeg, it doesn’t take long to spot a ‘for lease’ sign. They are sprinkled everywhere along with boarded-up businesses.

“It’s not back to normal,” said Youngho Cho, the owner of Umi Sushi in Winnipeg Square, where several shops have closed.

Cho says his business ranges from about half to two-thirds of what it was before the pandemic started.

The lunch hour is busy for his restaurant, but the rest of the time it’s quiet: “A lot of people came back to work downtown, but not all of them, so I think we lost some customers.”

Umi Sushi owners Yena Seo, left, and Youngho Cho, are trying to stay positive despite a drop in business. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

What Cho is noticing matches what researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Toronto found.

The researchers, who examined cellphone traffic in 62 North American cities, found that visits to downtown Winnipeg between March and May of this year were about 48 per cent when compared with the spring of 2019.

“So downtown Winnipeg is falling about in the middle or a little bit lower. It’s not doing that well,” said Karen Chapple, director of the school of cities and professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.

Chapple says while Winnipeg placed 45th out of the 62 cities surveyed, it managed to do better than other major cities including Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and San Francisco. She suggested it’s because Winnipeg’s downtown economy is diverse.

“There’s a number of different sectors there and it’s not heavily reliant on professional, scientific or management-type businesses,” she said.

The study, which is not yet peer-reviewed, relied on mobile phone location pings to measure activity.

Data scientists looked at “check-ins,” where a phone was present for more than five minutes, to determine how much activity downtown had while avoiding cars just driving through the area, for example.

Concerns about parking

“We want to see where there’s activity, where people are actually going into places,” Chapple said.

At Rudy’s Eat and Drink inside the Manitoba Hydro building, business is about half of what it was before the pandemic, according to general manager Mackenzie Robb.

“Outside of events and special occasions, that kind of thing, I’m not seeing as much consistency as I would like in day-to-day business. It’s a little unpredictable. We don’t really know what to expect every day but I think we are trending in the right direction.”

Mackenzie Robb, general manager of Rudy’s Eat & Drink, is getting creative in a bid to draw new customers to the downtown restaurant. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Robb says the lunch hour has been busy for the downtown restaurant but slow at other times. She’s been trying to come up with new ways to draw traffic, including having a trivia night and participating in Le Burger Week.

Lately, Robb has been fielding a lot of calls from potential customers who are concerned about parking downtown. She wondered whether people might be enticed to the area if the city restored free street parking, a temporary pandemic measure: “It does affect our business.”

Chapple suggested North American cities that have recovered the best such as New York (78 per cent recovery) and San Diego, Calif., (89 per cent recovery) have tourism to thank, which is possible because of their thriving arts and entertainment sectors.

But in Salt Lake City, which scored the best out of all 62 cities, she believes it was due to a spike in recent residential development in the downtown.

She says Winnipeg’s downtown residential population of 44,061 in 2021, one of the slowest growing in Canada, stands out to her.

Last year, Statistics Canada found the downtown had grown by just 3.9 per cent when compared with 2016.

“I did notice that there there aren’t many residents downtown,” she said. “It scores quite low in that regard, particularly relative to other Canadian cities, so that to me is a flag.”

Still, she believes downtown areas that are struggling will bounce back.

“They’ll try and reinvent themselves as more 24-hour places. They’ll open up to more residents downtown, and they’ll open up to more different types of uses — more arts, entertainment, festivals —different types of events that will keep them more of a lively place.”

Chapple says she and her colleagues are hoping to do another study in the fall that will measure traffic over the summer.

Back at Umi Sushi, Cho is staying positive and hoping for the best.

 “I hope we have more people will come downtown,” he said. “Everybody’s staying at home now.”