If the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s annual report and member survey was a Grade 6 student’s report card, there would be a large “needs improvement” note scrawled on the front page as the downtown core is still suffering as many lows as it celebrates highs.
The report, released June 15, is a story of a downtown still trying to recover from the economic slap of the pandemic while wrestling with the kinds of safety and social issues it has been dealing with for years.
“It’s not meant to be a fluff piece,” said Jeff Bray, executive director of the business association.
Survey respondents bemoaned the perception of downtown given the homeless problems and concerns about parking and traffic.
But the big issue, as it has been in previous years, is safety and security.
The survey revealed the top issues having an impact on downtown vitality are homelessness, mental health, addictions and open drug use.
“To me, having nine of 10 businesses saying that one of the top three challenges is homelessness, mental health and addictions and open drug use is a bit of a wake-up call,” said Bray. “We’ve never had a result that was so dominant.”
Bray said that kind of response means they need to take action.
“We can’t sort of say, all this behaviour is normalized. We actually have to say, ‘no, it’s not. The response isn’t sufficient,’ ” he said.
Bray said they will push for more help from the province on dealing with mental health and addiction issues.
“What our members are saying is that we need way more intensive services for this small, but very impactful group,” he said, adding they would also like to see increased services become less centralized and focused on one area.
“If you put them all in one, five- or six-block square radius, the needs are going to continue to follow the services,” he said. “So we need to move the services out to where we’re going to be housing people.”
The information gleaned from the survey will inform the DVBA’s advocacy work, and Bray said they have a track record of some success. Last year’s report and several other groups, including the City of Victoria, called for more complex care support and the province responded with support for 100 people in the region.
The survey also called for an emphasis on a clean downtown and increased police presence.
Bray said things are already looking brighter in 2022, with early reports of strong tourism numbers and a rebound in retail sales.
The survey revealed pandemic recovery took hold in 2021, with 44.6 per cent of businesses reporting growth in 2021 compared to only 19.5 per cent in 2020, and 35 per cent reporting they hired more staff last year.
The number of businesses that reported losses in 2021 improved, with 39 per cent reporting losses versus 68 per cent in 2020.
Event permits and film permits have increased, while 2021 was the start of a rebuild for tourism after being decimated in the first year of the pandemic.
“The fact that so many businesses were still operating, one of the overriding themes was the resilience despite all of these challenges,” said Bray. “There’s a lot of sort of positives there.”
Bray said many businesses are looking to expand in the next couple of years; population growth in the core has been significant and played a part in keeping the lights on for many downtown retailers and restaurants.