Despite the start of a gradual return to the office for federal public servants this week, downtown businesses say they have yet to see an increase in foot traffic.
Already an Insider? Log in
- Critical Ottawa business news and analysis updated daily.
- Immediate access to all Insider-only content on our website.
- 4 issues per year of the Ottawa Business Journal magazine.
- Special bonus issues like the Ottawa Book of Lists.
- Discounted registration for OBJ’s in-person events.
Despite the start of a gradual return to the office for federal public servants this week, downtown businesses say they have yet to see an increase in foot traffic. Treasury Board President Mona Fortier announced in December that employees across all departments in the core public service would be subject to a “phased introduction” of a return-to-office plan starting Jan. 16. The plan is expected to be fully implemented by the end of March 2023 and would see employees spending 40 to 60 per cent of their time at the office. A Treasury Board document explaining the change says that hybrid work is here to stay and the government is neither returning to a traditional model nor continuing with the one imposed by the pandemic. However, although they admit it’s early days, many downtown businesses say they haven’t seen the uptick in traffic and sales they were hoping for this week. The owner of Sunny Cleaners & Alterations on Metcalfe Street told OBJ his store has been no busier this week than last. The same is to be said for his neighbour at Metcalfe Hair Design. There, manager Huonz Ha says there are only between one and three appointments booked at the salon every day, with no increase in interest or appointments since the pre-Christmas rush. At Alterations Studio on Bank Street, owner and seamstress Svetlana Zgonjanin said she still isn’t seeing the business she used to but is hoping for things to improve. “I believe we will be busy,” she said. Daniela, who did not want her last name used, is a manager at L’Intervalle in the Rideau Centre. She said both the store and the mall itself have very low traffic. Pre-pandemic, government employees – who she could identify by their ID badges – came to the store to browse on their breaks, but now she says she doesn’t see them at all. Scott Sinclair, the owner of Letellier Shoes at 146 Rideau St., told OBJ that, while he feels it’s too early to draw conclusions, there has not been a significant improvement in business this week. His store has traffic counters, so Sinclair said he knows traffic has been measurably lower than expected. Pre-pandemic, Sinclair sold lots of office footwear, but there has been far less demand since, he said. He is hopeful, but said there is more to be done than simply sending federal employees back to the area. Businesses on Rideau Street have had a particularly tumultuous few years with road and lane closures, as well as construction. “I hope this brings some life back to Rideau Street and I hope that the people will return regardless of the fact that the area is less accessible,” Sinclair said. “But the city has its work cut out to get this area back on its feet.” Earlier this month, Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas (OCOBIA), told OBJ there is a sense of urgency among local businesses and uncertainty about the future. In many cases, business owners are unsure whether to renew their leases in downtown locations. “It was good news, to a degree, that the public servants are having a hybrid return to the office, but we know there is still going to be a gap with the businesses,” Groulx told OBJ. “Even pre-pandemic, the city of Ottawa, with the way that business downtown was, was dead after 5 p.m. on a weeknight and not busy on weekends unless there was an event. “Any kind of exciting plans or next steps would be nice,” said Groulx, who is awaiting the recommendations of the Downtown Ottawa Revitalization Task Force. “We know that many major cities are forming these plans and forging ahead. It’s not going to be easy or cheap, but at least forming a plan would be good.”