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High rents have businesses questioning merits of downtown Victoria

Despite concerns, capital has one of the lowest vacancy rates in Canada at 11 per cent
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Sisters Georgia and Jamie Bullbrook shopping along Johnson Street. (Ella Matte/News Staff)

Victoria’s downtown retail vacancy rate remains low compared to the rest of Canada due to the support received from the community, but rent pressures aren’t making it easy.

According to Jeff Bray, CEO of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, the downtown retail vacancy rate was around 11 per cent. Meanwhile, Edmonton and Winnipeg downtowns both had vacancy rates higher than 30 per cent last year.

“Compared to other places in Canada, we have fared well, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t work that needs to be done here to make sure that our downtown doesn’t just survive, but it actually thrives,” said Bray.

Although Victoria’s vacancy rates are low compared to others across the country, in 2019 vacancy rates were “around 4 per cent,” according to Bray. “So, obviously, as a result of COVID, we saw some business closures, people retiring and obviously during a pandemic, other people are not necessarily looking at that point to open up new business,” added Bray.

Erin Sabiston, owner of Violette Boutique, moved locations during the pandemic. On Sept. 1, 2020, the store opened on Johnson Street after operating on Government Street for 10 years.

“I think that is honestly one of our biggest challenges and has consistently been since we opened is just rent,” said Sabiston. “Rent is just the biggest suck. You have to prioritize it above everything else. It basically goes like rent, paying our employees, and then putting our money into the inventory, and it is so hard when we know we can grow the business, we know we can increase our revenue by putting more money into inventory.”

The rent is so expensive, Sabiston said, it “impacts us as business owners in terms of questioning whether or not it is worth it to have a business in downtown Victoria.”

Sabiston recently opened a new Violette Boutique location in Oak Bay. She understands the second location won’t have the same foot traffic it does downtown, but she’s willing to make that sacrifice for the decrease in rent.

“It’s not the same sort of traffic per se, but the sales-per-square-foot rate is sustainably less than what we pay for on Johnson Street.”

This is also a risk Sabiston is willing to take, knowing the loyalty of the shoppers at her stores.

“Summer, we definitely had a lot of foot traffic from tourists, but really overall, it’s the support from the local community that has driven the business from the very beginning,” added Sabiston.

Bray agreed with the small business owner.

“One of the things that Greater Victorians have been so great at has been supporting local and most of our businesses in downtown Victoria are independent small and medium-sized businesses,” he said.

Sisters Georgia and Jamie Bullbrook, who live in Victoria, were on Johnson Street near Violette Boutique and were spending the afternoon shopping at local businesses.

”We love our city and the businesses that make it unique,” said Georgia. “The holidays especially is an easy time to support locals and spend time downtown.”

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