This past week, we turned a corner on COVID-19 as a province. As Dr. Henry laid out our new freedoms in Step 2 of the re-opening plan, she said we may need to go slow moving forward. But she also said – that with more than three-quarters of B.C.’s adult population vaccinated with one dose – we likely won’t have to go backwards.
I felt a huge collective sigh of relief from our small business owners and tourism operators. While everyone has public health and the greater good top of mind, the “circuit breaker”, while necessary, felt like a big step backwards. It was emotionally hard to get through. The past 16 months as a whole have tested the resilience of Victoria’s small businesses. The pandemic has also been hard on our downtown – and downtowns across the country – from the turn towards online shopping, to the challenges of people living outside with untreated mental health and substance use issues.
So how is Victoria’s economy and downtown after more than a year of a global health pandemic? Undoubtedly challenges persist, but based on the numbers, better than you may think.
Working with the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) and other business leaders, we’ve taken a snapshot of February, March and April 2019, 2020 and 2021 so we understand where we were pre-pandemic and can measure our recovery. While there’s still more work to do implementing Victoria 3.0 – our plan for recovery, reinvention and resilience for the long term – there are encouraging signs of downtown’s resurgence beginning to emerge right now.
Let’s start with people driving. In February, March and April 2019, just over a million people parked at on-street meters and in city parkades. In the same months of 2020, that number went down to around 630,000. This year – even with substantial public health restrictions still in place – we were back to around 731,000. Last year’s summer data tells an even better story, and we’ll look forward to seeing the positive trend continue this summer.
The bike data into downtown from the counter at Harbour Road shows a strong year-over-year increase. February to April 2019 saw around 138,000 bikes. This was up to just over 147,000 in 2020. And in the same period in 2021, just over 154,000 bikes were counted. During the pandemic, people have been taking advantage of the safe cycling infrastructure the City has built and making healthy transportation choices to come downtown.
The DVBA’s pedestrian counters tell the most interesting story of all. Not surprisingly with so many people working from home, there are far fewer people walking in the downtown. But still, there is optimism to be gleaned from the data. In April 2021, even with the circuit breaker in place, we saw over 575,000 people counted by the DVBA pedestrian counters throughout the downtown, as compared to close to 445,000 in April 2020.
This is a far cry from the 1.7 million people counted in April 2019. We know where our north star is and that there’s still a lot of work to do to welcome people back to the office, to welcome tourists back to the city and – in addition to the decrease in commercial taxes this year and the Build Back Victoria program – to find ways to continue to support our small businesses through recovery.
Finally, a good measure of the economic health of a city is investor and builder confidence. This is where the numbers show a bright future for Victoria. Pre-pandemic, the building permit values for the months of February to April 2019 totaled just over $53 million. In 2020, amidst all the pandemic uncertainty, we saw a drop to around $47 million. This year from February to April, the value of building permits topped $130 million, more than double pre-pandemic values. Our city planners are run off their feet as we continue to see new applications for both residential and commercial buildings in downtown Victoria.
After 16 months of pandemic, there’s a pent-up demand for real life. People want to get out, have a meal, gather with friends and family, not leave the pub at 10 p.m., all while staying safe and respecting the health guidelines.
We can now travel within the province, and the City has been working alongside Destination Greater Victoria getting ready to welcome visitors. We’ve done this by adding new public plazas and spaces to gather, new pedestrian-only areas, and cycling infrastructure, for the benefit of locals and visitors alike.
We’ve helped to lay the groundwork for a healthy city and healthy economy. And we’ll continue to work hard in the next months and years to support our small businesses and our community, and to keep the numbers going in the right direction.
This piece was originally published in the Times Colonist here.