If that’s the case, cities will suffer, as many businesses, most notably restaurants, require foot traffic and lunch hours, pre-work coffees and post-work cocktail hours in order to survive.
So, for Puneeta McBryan, the new executive director of the Downtown Business Association, the first order of business in the spring, or when lockdown restrictions finally ease, is to encourage people to come downtown again.
“When there is foot traffic, that’s all our businesses really need,” she says.
To help bring traffic to restaurants during COVID, the DBA sponsored a second Downtown Dining Week in the fall of 2020, after the regularly scheduled event in the spring. Downtown Live, which brought local entertainers to patios, will likely be extended into 2021.
At the time of writing, nine downtown restaurants had applied for winter patio designations, knowing diners might be more comfortable outside than inside as restrictions ease. And McBryan expects patio culture to be a big part of the recovery into the spring and summer.
But the biggest thing for local restaurants would be the people who work downtown going back to their offices, and needing places to go for coffee, lunch and post-work meals and drinks.
“About 65,000 people work downtown, normally,” says McBryan. “And I don’t even think that takes into account the 30,000-plus post-secondary students who are usually there. So, all these restaurants in downtown specifically, their base of customers has been absolutely gutted. They don’t have that same residential base that are popping in for takeout regularly. They need those tens of thousands of people.”
So, the DBA is closely looking at what its other members are doing. Will workers be away from the offices? Will working from home be a permanent thing? Because, as McBryan says, “If they’re not working downtown, if they’re not going to school downtown, then they’re not eating downtown.”
If that “daytime population” doesn’t come back in the spring, then McBryan says the DBA will need to work hard to bring that foot traffic back. She says it’s not enough to have a great restaurant to coax someone to drive or take transit into the city’s core. What people need are experiences that bring them downtown, then they stop to eat while they are there.
There’s a deeper conversation about work-from-home culture and what it could do to cities; it’s not just about restaurants.
“It’s definitely a worry, but it’s not just an Edmonton worry,” says McBryan. “That’s something I am hearing being talked about all over the world. Twitter has decided in their offices that they’re going to make this a permanent policy, working from home. And I get it — for so many people, how flexible it feels and how great it is to work from home. But I hope that people understand the impact these decisions will have on the fabric of our cities, specifically the downtown cores.”
This article appears in the March 2021 issue of Edify.