It’s lunchtime on a mid-week summer day and Victoria’s Fisherman’s Wharf appears busy.
Except that this level of “busy” would be more typical for a nice day during the shoulder season for the popular outdoor food and recreation stop. With no cruise ships docking at Ogden Point due to COVID-19 and the virus keeping much of the regular tourist traffic at home, it’s been a devastating year for most tourism-oriented merchants.
The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) serves as landlord for many retail and commercial businesses on the city’s harbour and isn’t hearing much good news from operators, says authority CEO Ian Robertson.
“I’m not hearing a lot of positivity, everybody is telling me they are down, and down significantly,” he says. “Some merchants say, ‘I’m able to get by, but cruise [business] is the difference between being in the black or being in the red.’”
The not-for-profit GVHA, which typically receives no government funding – some people are under the impression it is an arm of government, Robertson says – is reeling from the lack of cruise business. That absence alone means $12.5 million less revenue this year and in combination with other pandemic-related effects, the GVHA projects a $3-million deficit for 2020.
Despite that dire scenario, the organization is working to help tenants via rent deferrals, applying for Canadian Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance on their behalf, being flexible with onsite advertising signage rules and promoting businesses through social media.
The formula for the federal rent assistance program offers a good example of how dedicated GVHA is to supporting its tenants. It calls for 50 per cent to be paid by government, 25 per cent by the tenant and 25 per cent forgiven by the landlord.
“Although we’re going to lose $3 million, we’re kicking in 25 per cent of this, because we believe it’s the right thing to do,” says Robertson, adding that their own administration office landlord is offering no such rental relief.
“From what I’m hearing, the tenants are grateful [for the help],” he says. Where many landlords have chosen to defer collecting rent until the fall, GVHA knows that its tenants’ primary revenue period is late spring through early fall. “We took the position that [deferral] is not going to help our tenants. They need to do as best they can for this season.”
Christina Clarke, CEO of the Songhees Development Corporation and a GVHA board member, says it makes good long-term sense to partner with tenants during this difficult time.
“It’s a compassionate approach. We all want to come through this together, and everything [GVHA] can do to support people to get through it will help us all,” she says. “A lot of businesses in the tourism and hospitality industry are working hard to remind people we are still here.”
The harbour authority has also been proactive in trying to help small businesses stay viable and attract visitors to the harbour. Two examples are inviting Songhees Events and Catering to park its Songhees Seafood and Steam food truck at Ship Point, and working with the Breakwater Bistro to expand its outdoor seating to boost capacity while maintaining social distancing measures.
Robertson has had “a lot of sleepless nights” over balancing support for tenants with working to keep his organization afloat. A 2021 cruise schedule is not a given, he says, which could spell disaster for the GVHA or at the least drastically alter the way it operates.
Learn more about the GVHA, its tenants and activities at gvha.ca.