As politicians talk about recovery and employers tentatively pitch back-to-office plans, the streets of downtown Toronto sometimes seem almost as ghostly empty as they did at the height of the pandemic.
And the new data may point to a reason: The recovery in the once-bustling city center is lagging behind not just the GTA, but Canada in general.
Across the country, urban centers have struggled compared to other major city regions in Canada, but the gap is greatest in Toronto, said Marcy Burchfield, vice president of the Economic Blueprint Institute, an initiative of the Board of Trade. of the Toronto Region.
“We have been moving slowly in the last 18 months,” Burchfield said. The data shows that the recovery of the center has been slow, not a flood. In-person spending in the city center fell to 75 percent below 2019 levels when the pandemic began, and has only risen to about 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels.
“Given the importance of our region to the national economy, to the provincial economy, it is absolutely prudent for governments to understand how we are recovering in different parts of the region,” Burchfield said.
John Settino works for iPR Group in downtown Toronto and has been going to the office. In 2020, he recalls that the financial district was almost completely empty and said it was still almost the same in 2021, although he noted that things began to improve near the end of the summer.
It’s not as busy as he remembers it, but Settino has noticed slightly longer lines for coffee and food, and a few more people in the parks and the St. Lawrence Market.
“You’re starting to wait a bit longer for things,” he said.
The Toronto Region Board of Trade launched its Recovery Tracker Friday, a web-based data tool developed by the Economic Blueprint Institute.
The Recovery Tracker analyzes data on mobility, spending and employment in what it calls the innovation corridor (Oshawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph and Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo) that illustrates the economic trajectory of the area before the pandemic and the effects of the COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, the Innovation Corridor was a “key growth engine” for Canada, according to the board, accounting for a quarter of Canada’s GDP in 2017.
“We were growing by leaps and bounds before the pandemic,” Burchfield said.
Within the corridor there are five business districts, depending on the sector and type of business. There is the Metropolitan Center, which is the financial district of downtown Toronto; Goods, production and distribution, which includes warehouses and shipping centers; Mixed-use business and services; Knowledge creation, which includes universities, colleges and university hospitals; and regional centers, such as downtown Mississauga.
The tracker looks at employment rates, mobility data, in-person spending, and e-commerce in these districts and the corridor. This data shows that, so far, the Innovation Corridor is not picking up jobs as fast as Canada overall, and downtown Toronto is the worst of all business districts.
The mobility data, which captures cars, trucks and buses, shows that the metro hub has seen the largest decrease in vehicle mobility, probably due to widespread work from home even after a year and a half of the pandemic.
However, this data does not capture the subway or train, Burchfield said. In future releases, the board hopes to be able to add data from the GO and TTC trains, he said, to build a more complete picture of commuters.
Data on in-person consumer spending in the city center, combined with mobility data, paints a grim picture.
Both vehicle travel to the metro hub and in-person spending in the metro hub have plummeted, due to the high proportion of workers working from home, and are likely to continue to do so at high levels.
“With the drop in mobility and people not coming to the city center,” Burchfield said, “the metro hub experienced the worst in terms of decreased consumer spending.”
Although many large employers have plans to bring workers back to the office, this is likely to be a gradual return influenced by the trajectory of the fourth wave. According to the tracker, an estimated two-thirds of employees in the metropolitan downtown district are working from home.
In-person spending can be broken down by district and by type of expense, such as retail, services, and travel / entertainment. Not surprisingly, it’s the third category that has done worse, while retail has done better.
The unemployment rate in the corridor was 8.8 percent in August, compared with 7.1 percent across Canada; the tracker shows that the corridor was about 250,000 jobs below where it would have been without the pandemic, based on the pre-pandemic trajectory.
Much of this gap is likely due to ongoing struggles by downtown food, entertainment and service companies, Burchfield said, companies that have a “symbiotic relationship” with office workers.
Although spending and mobility are slowly increasing, Burchfield said the fourth wave of COVID-19, combined with the end of personal and business financial supports in October, could further affect Toronto’s recovery.
Although the Toronto metropolitan center has experienced by far the largest and most sustained decline, the tracker shows that the business district that covers the production and distribution of goods has seen a stronger economic recovery than the other districts.
Many workers in this district are essential workers who have continued to go to work during the pandemic, and the district is also responsible for much of the e-commerce boom, according to the trade board.
The tracker will be updated monthly with data to track the recovery of these economic districts, compared to the rest of Canada and where the economy might have been if not for COVID-19. Future releases will include more economic indicators, Burchfield said.
“The Recovery Tracker is intended to provide businesses, political leaders, and other stakeholders with knowledge and trends that will help inform future investment and strategic decisions,” said Board Chairman and CEO Jan De Silva. , in a press release Friday. “As we continue our economic recovery and begin to look toward a return to office, once the time is right, it will become increasingly important to better understand how different types of businesses have been affected by COVID-19 and what it is. your recovery. it will look like. That’s what the Tracker claims to report. “