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Government Street in Victoria was one of the avenues used in the study

Block Reports takes a close look at how seven main streets in B.C. and Ontario cities have fared during COVID

As COVID-19 transforms the business world, a new study shows how it’s reshaping main streets in two of Canada’s major cities.  

The Block Reports survey, by Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, Vancity Community Investment Bank and the Toronto-based Canadian Urban Institute, puts seven commercial hubs in B.C. and Ontario under the microscope. The four B.C. representatives: 137th Street in Surrey’s Newton, East Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood, downtown Victoria’s Government Street and Tranquille Road in Kamloops’ North Shore.

The authors looked at data such as business closures, foot traffic pre- and post-COVID, the proportion of independent businesses and the size of the local residential population. Among their key findings:

Strong local economics and connections to the community are helping businesses through the pandemic. On 137th Street in Surrey, for example, 76 percent of businesses are independently owned, and many of them cater to the local Indian and Filipino communities. As a result, this main street saw the lowest decline in visitor traffic, at 36 percent, and no businesses have permanently shut their doors since COVID started.

Main streets and businesses that cater to local resident populations enjoy an advantage. Government Street in downtown Victoria, which relies heavily on daytime workers and seasonal tourists, saw visitation levels plunge 78 percent year-over-year in April. By contrast, 137th Street is a town centre for the surrounding population, which may help explain why visitation only fell 36 percent.

Main streets that were struggling with vacancy and rising rents before COVID may be at higher risk. The Beach neighbourhood along Toronto’s Queen Street East is the big loser here. Despite its large local resident population, the district has suffered nine permanent business closures since the pandemic began. Pre-COVID, the Beach had a high vacancy rate of 12 to 13 percent for commercial spaces, partly thanks to steep rents and property taxes.

Businesses are finding innovative ways to adapt, but some are falling behind. For instance, 78 percent of food and general retail/service businesses in the downtown Victoria block now sell their products online, versus just 29 percent in Kamloops’ North Shore.

Recovery will hinge on filling vacant storefronts and animating main streets. When it comes to permanent business closures during COVID, the B.C. blocks did relatively well. Besides Newton, which has had none, Kamloops’ Tranquille Road and East Hastings Street have each seen one closure, and Victoria’s Government Street has lost four businesses.

“Across all the blocks, however, there was a sense the businesses will continue to close—especially when government financial and other emergency supports come to an end,” the authors note. Among their suggestions for animating main streets and addressing vacancies: pop-up shops, which fill empty storefronts and engage local entrepreneurs and artists.

The next Block Reports update is in September.