Dear Victoria.

I love downtown. It’s vibrant, fun, cultured and for a city of only 350,000, incredibly diverse. And, despite the reputation, you can actually find a thing or two to do after 9pm. However, there is one glaring issue: small businesses don’t seem to be occupying storefronts like they used to and lease vacancies are becoming more and more visible.

A few months ago CTV did an informal poll of tourists asking what their first impressions of the city were. Clean, friendly, quaint… and any other adjective you would use to describe a doily stand at a Duncan craft fair were mentioned. However a lot of concern was placed on that nothing seemed open. Not only were store hours inconvenient, but actual storefronts themselves were empty. And it’s true… if you walk on Warf or Government, it can feel more deserted than a house giving out raisins and proper bruising instructions on Halloween.

So I wanted to find out if this is perception or actuality. Is this a systemic problem, or just the natural ebb and flow of commerce?   And for that I went to see Ken Kelly. Ken is the General Manager of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, an organization that looks out for hundreds of property owners and thousands of businesses and is committed to promoting commerce and investment in Victoria’s core.

I’m not going to lie to you. I was a little bummed by Ken’s logical and well thought out answer. I was more hoping that he would go the sinister cabal route rather than use reason and facts. I mean… common… I’m trying to get page views here.  But, sadly, there is no giant conspiracy. There is no money hungry syndicate determined to keep the little guy down. No Masons, Illuminati or Skull and Bones at play.

Simply, people aren’t shopping downtown as much. He credits this to two things. First, Victoria was late to the suburbs party. Where most cities had their migrations outward 50 years ago, Wagons West-Shore didn’t happen until the early 2000’s.

Second, shopping patterns have changed. Ken mentions online shopping, but that only accounts for 5.2 percent of the typical Canadian shoppers purchase. However, a study last year found that nearly 60% of us would rather hunt for a deal than be loyal to a particular store. This means that there is a move to big box stores and chains rather than independent retailers.

Oddly parking never came up. It was one of those things that I’m cursing myself for not asking about, but frankly, parking is bad in pretty much any downtown core. And considering that in the Victoria civic parkades, the first hour is free as are evenings, with $2/hr otherwise, it’s not as bad as the perception.

So what’s to be done? Obviously shopping in the core and at locally owned stores is a big part of it, but Ken had a few more answers.

Part of the onus does fall on landlords. Starting a business is no small task. And add in $30/sqft, permit fees, upkeep, stock, and staff and more, an owner is already behind before they even open. That’s why Ken is a big believer in landlords working with potential businesses to find a system that benefits both of them. It may just be as simple as faith and cutting the owner a little slack until they get through those first tricky years.

But what about the owner? If you have a plan, product and passion, what can you do to mitigate the odds?

Like I said before, starting a business isn’t easy. It’s a labour of love and should be entered into with eyes wide open and that’s why the DVBA initiated Invest Downtown. It provides potential business owners with metrics like pedestrian count, workforce numbers, parking availability and more.

The solution seems so simple. Persuading consumers to shop local, landlords increasing their accommodation and businesses using the research available to them. I guess the Illuminati will have to wait until my next blog.

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