Winnipeg economic group prepares for post-pandemic growth, but some struggling in short term

A Winnipeg group that works to grow and promote the city’s economy is staying focused on long-term plans it hopes will help businesses bounce back after COVID-19.

“We are seeing light at the end of this tunnel,” said Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.

Spiring presented her organization’s most recent quarterly update on post-pandemic recovery to the City of Winnipeg’s innovation committee Monday. Though she said the coronavirus variant Omicron “put a wrench” in her group’s plans, Spiring laid out the ways it’s focusing on the future to boost the city’s economy.

A big part of that is attracting and retaining skilled workers, she said. Spiring reported more than 1,000 Manitoba businesses are now part of the Retrain Manitoba program, which started in November.

The program — a partnership between Economic Devleopment Winnipeg, The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce and the province — reimburses employers that want to train existing employees with new skills. Spiring said $7 million of the available $12.5 million has been taken.

Dayna Spiring wants to help businesses focus on a post-pandemic Winnipeg. (CBC News)

Spiring said she and her colleagues are working with Manitoba post-secondary schools to make sure they’re training people to fill gaps in growing industries like the technology sector. The group is also actively trying to recruit skilled workers from places like Ukraine, Argentina, Paris and the United Kingdom.

“These are all areas that offer strong talent pools with people who may be looking for economic or political stability, affordability and a quality of life that Winnipeg can offer in spades,” Spiring told the committee.

“These missions also provide us with the prospect of attracting excellent players back home. We can remind them this is a chance to reconnect with family and friends. It’s a place they can build or continue a great career,”

Entertainment, hospitality, tourism industries still struggling

While some industries are preparing for better days, others are just trying to get through each day.

“When you don’t have that manpower, you can’t perform,” said Kelly Miranda, manager of Pampanga Restaurant and Banquet Hall in downtown Winnipeg.

Miranda and her family have kept their business closed for almost three weeks, even though restaurants are allowed to be open for in-person dining at 50 per cent capacity. Miranda said they’re trying to prevent her diabetic father from contracting COVID-19. But it’s also hard to keep the restaurant going, Miranda said, when staff keep calling in sick.

“I know we have to keep everybody safe, but at the same time we’re losing business because we can’t open fully because I’m short on staff,” said Miranda. She said at some points, she was working by herself, dealing with delivery orders, phone calls and business maintenance.

The family took advantage of financial breaks for businesses early in the pandemic, but now Miranda worries the only that will get them through the pandemic is the end of it. Miranda said the restaurant is opening on Wednesday for takeout only, but that’s the most they can do right now.

Kelly Miranda (front, far right) with her parents Lourdes and Aladino Miranda (centre), her sister Gladys (front, far left) all run the family’s Filipino restaurant, Pampanga in downtown Winnipeg. (Supplied by Kelly Miranda)

“At the end of the day, it’s our safety first and our customers’ and our employees’,” she said.

“Hopefully cases get better and hopefully the government says we can open fully or there are less restrictions. If not,then I guess we’ll just have to close for the day if we get sick.”

The hotel industry is also struggling through the Omicron wave. While there are no public health restrictions keeping hotels closed, the Manitoba Hotel Association reports it’s still hard to bring in customers.

“You can still go to the bar. You can still have a wedding. You can still travel. But the reality is that people aren’t doing that to the level that they were,” said Scott Jocelyn, the association’s president and CEO.

“It might look like we’re good, but the reality is we’re not really open, and we’ll continue to need help.”

Jocelyn said short-term help could include a property-tax break from both the provincial and municipal governments.

Focusing on the future

Spiring said there are some short-term programs different levels of government have set up to help struggling businesses right now, but Economic Development Winnipeg is focused on the long run for Winnipeg.

“To move the needle, we really start to have to think about how are we going to position ourselves for life after this pandemic,” she told CBC News.

When asked what she wanted to say to business owners who are having a hard time focusing on the future, Spiring said “We are going to open up again. Get ready.”

“I know a lot of business owners who are thinking they don’t know how much more of this they can bear. And we get that. But I think right now, our only real option is to prepare for brighter days.”