Downtown Winnipeg BIZ hopes metropolis’s versatile work coverage would not gradual rebound

Advocates for downtown Winnipeg worry the neighbourhood’s post-COVID rebound would slow down if the city allows too many employees to work remotely all the time.

But a City of Winnipeg committee voted against a proposal Wednesday that would require city employees to work in the office at least two days a week.

Under the City of Winnipeg’s new flexible work policy, employees can work with their managers to find a schedule that is best for them. Theoretically, employees could work remotely all the time if their manager agrees. 

Kate Fenske, the chief executive officer of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said her organization doesn’t want to see the city “forcing anyone back.”

But “the message that it sends to have up to five days a week remote is concerning for small businesses,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Before the pandemic, the city’s chief administrative officer said about 1,100 of its employees worked in offices downtown. That crowd plays a big part in the vitality of downtown businesses and beyond, Fenske said.

“The revenue that is generated in our downtown does support other amenities and services, community services, infrastructure improvements throughout our entire city,” she said.

“When we’re looking at the big picture, and as a city as a whole, how can we actually grow that revenue base to support more things throughout the city?”

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ CEO Kate Fenske wants city workers to have a flexible schedule, but hopes that doesn’t come at the cost of downtown’s vitality. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

To try to stave off any issues, Coun. Janice Lukes (Waverley West) suggested all city employees be required to work at least two days a week from the office. She was at Wednesday’s executive policy committee meeting to support her motion.

However, the suggestion was unanimously struck down by the committee.

The rest of the motion, which asked city staff to collect data on how the current policy is working, was unanimously approved. The motion goes to council May 26 for final approval.

Executive policy committee member Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface) called the suggested two-day policy a “blunt tool” based on an “arbitrary” number, and said it wouldn’t work for everyone.

Remote work helps him as a single father, he said. Had he been forced to come to work for a certain number of days this week, he wouldn’t have been able to take care of his sick son on Tuesday, Allard said.

He said he would support repurposing some of the city’s downtown office space if enough people choose to work remotely.

“We’re seeing … [office space] being converted to residential, and that’s what we really need in the city,” Allard told reporters.

“Yes, it’s good for people to work downtown, but what we need is for people to live downtown. “

Chief administrative officer Michael Jack said he would not consider closing the city’s downtown office space, but would look at office buildings in other neighbourhoods if necessary.

“Most of our office workers, in fact, are already downtown. We’re willing to close the ones in the more suburban areas than the ones downtown,” he said.

“I know council expects me to constantly be looking for efficiencies, and I think the public deserves that. So we would absolutely examine that. But I’ve been clear that’s not an option for our presence downtown.”

Jack said a major driver of the flexible work policy was to make the city an attractive and competitive employer, and keep up with workplace culture.

If that culture changes in the future, the policy can be altered to keep up, he told councillors.

Committee votes to keep library in place

At its Wednesday meeting, the committee also considered a city staff report on the West Kildonan library, and its proposed relocation from Jefferson Avenue to inside the Garden City Shopping Centre.

The report asked to solidify a lease in the shopping centre, which would allow for the move.

However, the committee decided to receive the report as information — meaning it didn’t endorse acting on the lease recommendation.

That means the library would stay on Jefferson Avenue.

A final decision on the library will be made by full council.

The committee also passed a motion on Wednesday to support the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs in Winnipeg.

That was a big move for Alisa Friesen, a member of Overdose Awareness Manitoba, who used to use illicit drugs. She also lost a 21-year-old cousin to an overdose in Winnipeg.

“If this is where we need to start, then so be it,” said Friesen, stressing Winnipeggers are dying because of a lack of harm reduction resources in the city.

“We do whatever we can to get that result that we need,” even if that means “small baby steps,” she said.

Alisa Friesen was at city hall on Wednesday, showing support for the call to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs within city limits. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The motion passed 4-2, with Mayor Brian Bowman and Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) against. Couns. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Allard, Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) and Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River) voted in favour.

That motion also has to go to full council for a vote before it becomes official.

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