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Downtown Victoria reps surprised by business resiliency during pandemic

Loss of businesses modest, report shows, growth of new retail spaces continues
Downtown Victoria Business Association executive director Jeff Bray stands outside Zingaro Floral Perfumery at 561 Johnson St., among the new businesses that opened downtown this year. (Kiernan Green/News Staff)

The Downtown Victoria Business Association’s third annual report shows a noteworthy resiliency in the local economy – and a need for a greater police presence downtown.

The report, released Wednesday, was the first to outline the pandemic’s impact on 1,400 downtown businesses, 36 per cent of which have been operating for two decades or more.

DVBA executive director Jeff Bray said he’d perhaps have expected more downtown business owners to toss in the towel from the effects of the pandemic.

“The fact that so many businesses were able to survive is really good news. Certainly, I would not have anticipated it … In July of 2020, I would not have thought we would have stayed this strong,” Bray said.

The losses were almost marginal. Business licences saw a 1.5-per-cent decline across the City of Victoria between 2019 and 2020 and vacancies of downtown retail space rose three points to 6.4 per cent – a far cry from 2013’s peak vacancy rate of 13.5 per cent.

Victoria office vacancy rates climbed to 7.1 per cent, but remained below the national average of 10.2 per cent, according to a report from professional services firm Price WaterhouseCoopers.

Each measurement represents a local economy that was surprisingly resilient as well as challenged throughout the pandemic, Bray said.

READ ALSO: Online retail sales up more than 100% in January 2021 year-over-year

The majority of business owners surveyed for the DVBA’s annual report credited the inclusion of e-commerce business models, alternative product delivery and federal government support for their survival throughout the pandemic. Additionally, Greater Victoria residents strongly embraced shopping locally, Bray said.

Substantial economic activity prior to the pandemic also showed returns in the months throughout, he added. More than 67,000 square feet of new retail space was built in new or existing locations downtown in 2019, nearly as much as was built (72,500 sq. ft.) between 2016 and 2018.

“We’ve been on a very positive trend for five years. A lot of businesses were seeing double-digit growth year over year,” Bray said. Over 53,000 sq.ft. more retail space is slated for completion by the end of 2021 – over double that built in 2020.

On the down side, well over half of downtown businesses saw a reduction in staff and profits between 2019 and 2020 as a result of the pandemic economy. After COVID, however, most businesses saw the downtown’s cleanliness and safety as the greatest negative impact on their vitality and called for an increased police presence.

”Crime stats paint a picture,” Bray said, regarding recent stats putting Victoria’s crime severity index as highest in the province. “It’s still very safe downtown, people feel very safe downtown. But our businesses need to see that support.”

READ ALSO: 16 shoplifters arrested at 1 Victoria business in 3 days

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