Edmonton’s surviving downtown businesses anxious for enduring recovery

Amir Haidari would wait for hours, watching for signs of life outside his downtown tailor shop.

During the most restrictive months of COVID-19, entire days went by without a single customer.

Many other businesses neighbouring his store inside the Edmonton City Centre shopping mall had closed up shop.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Haidari, the owner of John the Tailor. “Sitting here for days and you can’t even see one person passing this corridor.

“We were one of the lucky ones. We survived.” 

The first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on many Alberta businesses.

The downtowns of Edmonton and Calgary were hit especially hard as workers lost jobs or retreated to working from home: vacant office buildings, empty restaurants, deserted shopping malls, and storefronts with “For Lease” signs plastered across their windows.

This Coles bookstore location in Edmonton City Centre is set to close later this month — the latest in a string of downtown businesses to close since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

But despite all that, some unlikely survivors — independent businesses operating on tiny margins — pulled through, defying the odds.

With restrictions lifted and office workers now returning to their cubicles, downtown Edmonton business owners are hoping improved profit margins will follow, allowing them to put a dent in crippling debt loads accrued during the pandemic.

During the spring of 2020, Haidari took all his overdue bills and laid them out on the shop floor.

The carpet was barely visible under the invoices.

Haidari has owned John the Tailor in Edmonton City Centre — the city’s only downtown mall — since 2010. The shop has been operating downtown since 1978.

During the worst months of the pandemic, the shop was only taking in about 10 per cent of regular revenue.

Without federal relief programs and a few dedicated regulars, Haidari said his store would not have survived. 

Business has picked up — slowly — as office workers and big events put his custom suits and military uniforms back in demand.

Haidari expects it will take him up to five years to pay his debts.

“I had my savings,” he said, “and they’re all gone.”

‘A slow climb’

COVID-19 was particularly hard on downtown businesses as fewer people worked and shopped in the area.

While the City of Edmonton doesn’t track business closures, city data shows that 25 business licences in Edmonton’s downtown were cancelled in 2020, while 177 were issued. The following year, 20 licences were cancelled.

Retail and office vacancy rates also point to the disproportionate and lingering impact on the core. 

After climbing to six per cent in the second quarter of 2021, average vacancy rates for office, retail and industrial properties in the greater Edmonton area fell to 5.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2022, according to a market report prepared by NAI Commercial Real Estate.

In central Edmonton, however, the retail vacancy continued to rise, increasing from 5.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2021 to six per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Office vacancy rates also remain notably high in the downtown, climbing from 9.5 to 10.9 per cent during the same time frame.

A survey by the Downtown Business Association — conducted in early February — suggested that 70 per cent of workers were planning to return to their offices in the core. 

Operators are hopeful that workers will return with wallets open, said Puneeta McBryan, the association’s executive director. 

Optimism is high but many businesses continue to struggle, she said.

“The return to the office was that really big boost in April. Now, this is where we’re going see how sustainable it is,” McBryan said. “Do we fall off again?

“It’s the slow and steady, day-to-day predictable revenue that we desperately need right now, and it’s really hard to say what that’s going to look like.” 

Changing worker and consumer habits, along with a lingering labour shortage, will temper a rebound, she said. Many downtown employees will continue to work from home, at least part-time. 

Inflation is undercutting profits. Federal pandemic grants that kept many businesses afloat have long run out.

“The post-COVID recovery is not a sprint,” McBryan said. “It’s going to be a slow climb.”

At the Commodore, one of Edmonton’s oldest restaurants, owner David Gee and a lone waitress serve up coffee, eggs— and the occasional side of pie — as the sound of cutlery clatters over linoleum.

The family restaurant on Jasper Avenue has been in operation since 1942.

The diner was closed for a total of eight months during various waves of the pandemic. It continues operating with limited opening hours and a “skeleton crew,” Gee said.

He said the business would not have survived if he had to pay rent on the building. 

Business is gradually picking up but he doubts that customer traffic — especially during the regular lunch-hour rush — will ever return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“A lot of them aren’t coming back,” he said. 

David Gee, owner of the Commodore diner, doubts that his lunch rush will ever be quite as busy as it was before the pandemic. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

Arif and Nadya Bijani bought Cookie Love in Edmonton City Centre in February 2020. 

As work-from-home orders were enforced, customer traffic at the café fell by about 90 per cent.

Pots of coffee went cold before ever getting served.

Some days ended with only $20 in the till, not enough to cover the couple’s own parking fees. 

Arif said his wife was often brought to tears.

We have survived somehow and hope for a good future now that people have come back to the downtown.-Arif Bijani

“Literally, there was no one in the building,” he said. “It was horrible.

“Those were hard days. We had sleepless nights … but I hope that time has passed. 

“We have survived somehow and hope for a good future now that people have come back to the downtown.” 

They were able to defer rent payments on the business for two years, and expect it will take three years to pay off that debt.

“You have a debt on your head and you can’t sleep,” Nadya said. “We don’t know how the business is going to recover. 

“People are coming back but still, you’re scared that it doesn’t go backwards. You hope it grows better day by day.”

Arif and Nadya Bijani bought Cookie Love in Edmonton City Centre in February 2020. Within weeks of opening, pandemic restrictions began. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

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