A new study on main streets in B.C. and Ontario released December 7 by Vancity shows that rising crime has become a characteristic for B.C. downtown retailers struggling through the pandemic, where it is the No. 1 concern in Victoria and East Vancouver.
The survey, done during October and November by Vancity Community Investment Bank and the Canadian Urban Institute, focused on Government Street in Victoria, Strathcona and East Hastings Street in Vancouver, the Newton area of Surrey and Tranquille Avenue in Kamloops, plus downtown shopping streets in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. It followed up on a similar survey conducted in April as the pandemic expanded.
While street crime was a non-issue along Lawrence Avenue in Toronto and a relatively minor concern in downtown Hamilton, it was among the biggest issues in three of the four B.C. blocks surveyed.
According to the study, Government Street in Victoria saw a massive drop in “feet on the street”, with nearly one million fewer visits this year to the retail block between Humboldt and Johnson streets between April and September. Yet the main concern for 77 per cent of merchants on the strip was crime and safety issues.
In Vancouver’s Strathcona survey, which studied a block of East Hastings Street, the study found that consumer traffic had dropped by 48 per cent from April to September, but that street crime was the No.1 concern for nearly seven of 10 local businesses.
“There has been an increase in graffiti, break and enters and public drinking,” the survey found, noting that “this block is also close to a homeless tent encampment.”
As of September, three businesses on this block had permanently closed and two others remained closed temporarily. “While most businesses have managed to stay open, they are struggling as a result of reduced revenues less foot traffic, and the costs associated with COVID reactionary measures,” the survey reported.
The study said small businesses in all the areas studied are dealing with the increased effects of the opioid crisis and vandalism, but that these concerns were much more widespread in B.C. than in the Ontario samples.
“Right across the country small businesses are struggling. And if we let them fail, the whole country will be poorer for it. Local businesses form the backbone of the Canadian economy and they have shown determination and resilience during the pandemic,” said Christine Bergeron, Vancity’s interim chief executive.
Each one of the seven blocks studied said visits were down 35 to 70 per cent compared with the same time last year, and 58 per cent of businesses are operating with reduced revenues.
In the Newton area of Surrey, the survey focused on a shopping block on 137 Street where 63 per cent of businesses report decreased revenues. While crime was not the overriding concern respondents said that homelessness, addiction and mental health issue are increasing, “creating a perception of a lack of safety and a negative perception of Newton Centre.”
The Kamloops downtown survey was on a block of Tranquille Road, which includes an eclectic mix of 60 businesses, 88 per cent of which are independently owned. The survey found that 28 per cent reported decreased business in September compared to April, the least of any of the seven blocks studied. However, the survey also discovered that street safety issues, such as property crime and drug use are a “major concerns on this block.
“While [such] street activity was quiet during the summer, around the third week of September there was a rise in street activity, aligning with the end of [the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit] CERB,” the survey found.