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Winnipeg businesses fear for bottom line during construction season — but expert says the city could help

It’s hard to miss the construction surrounding Chris Kirouac’s Winnipeg ice cream shop, whether it’s because your car bottoms out trying to enter a parking lot that’s had a chunk of concrete removed or because your vanilla cone gets coated with sand swept up by a gust of wind.

“It’s just been really a big mess. I mean, we’re doing winter sales numbers right now in the summer, just because people are scared to come,” said Kirouac, who manages Dug & Betty’s Ice Creamery, his family’s business on Des Meurons Street in St. Boniface.

In the city’s West End, staff at Eadha Bakery Worker Co-op decided to close their doors for at least the rest of this week after a nearby construction project tore up the entire lane and sidewalk in front of the tiny Ellice Avenue shop.

Two businesses shown in side-by-side photos. Each has the road in front of it removed with construction pylons, sawhorses and fencing nearby.
Eadha Bakery Worker Co-op and Dug & Betty’s Ice Creamery are just a few businesses getting hit hard by the more than 200 construction projects currently underway across Winnipeg. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Baker and co-owner Mack Parman said even if the bakery was accessible, the construction itself has been incredibly disruptive — with debris hitting the building, smoke coming in through the vents and vibrations at times making the shop shake like there’s an earthquake.

“We just don’t feel right having people try to manoeuvre their way into the building,” Parman said, adding while the shop averages about 200 customers weekly, there have only been 10 this week.

A young person with a buzzcut and several nose piercings smiles and holds a loaf of bread in a bakery.
Mack Parman is a baker and co-owner at Eadha Bakery Worker Co-op, a tiny shop on Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg’s West End. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

As Winnipeg’s roughly six-month construction season inches forward, Kirouac’s ice creamery and Parman’s bakery are among the businesses getting hit hard by the more than 200 projects that city spokesperson Julie Horbal Dooley said are underway.

Their stories highlight what one expert calls an issue the city should take seriously and come up with solutions to address — especially when it comes to small operations that may struggle to stay afloat during a days- or weeks-long construction slump.

High stakes for small businesses

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of the city. It’s what makes a city unique. Like, I can go to McDonald’s or Burger King or Wendy’s, you know, in any city,” said Fabrizio Di Muro, an associate professor who studies consumer behaviour in the University of Winnipeg’s department of business and administration.

It’s not uncommon for customers to stop visiting a business if it becomes dangerous or even inconvenient to access, Di Muro said.

And for smaller operations, which often “operate on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis,” construction that goes on for a few weeks could have serious impacts — including potentially forcing them to close their doors for good. 

Spokesperson Horbal Dooley said the city is in contact with both Kirouac’s and Parman’s shops and working on ways to make them easier to access, like installing a ramp and fencing outside the bakery and looking into how to maintain pedestrian access at the ice cream shop.

But the construction isn’t ending anytime soon.

The project near the bakery is expected to last for at least the next month, while the one outside the ice creamery will continue through the fall (though crews will be switching lanes away from the street directly in front of it early next month, Horbal Dooley said).

Reimburse for lost costs: expert

In the meantime, associate professor Di Muro said there are steps the city can take to help businesses struggling because of construction, including having crews work longer hours to finish projects sooner and working with owners to schedule work for less disruptive times.

Another option is to reimburse businesses for revenue lost during nearby construction projects, similar to Montreal’s financial assistance program for businesses affected by major construction.

“It’s a win for the people, it’s a win for the business owners,” Di Muro said. 

“The city looks good. It gives the idea that they really care about small businesses. You’re being innovative.”

A man wearing glasses and a striped shirt smiles in front of a wall.
Fabrizio Di Muro is an associate professor who studies consumer behaviour in the University of Winnipeg’s department of business and administration. (Submitted by Fabrizio Di Muro)

City spokesperson Horbal Dooley said while Winnipeg’s public works department reported to council on the topic in June, its report found no major Canadian city surveyed has a universal compensation program for road renewal projects.

That included Montreal, whose program only applies to some types of businesses during certain kinds of projects, according to the report.

Kirouac and Parman said for now, they’re focused on the present, coming up with new ways to get their ice cream to their customers and finding community resource centres to donate their baked goods to before they expire. 

And while they know the construction updates are important for their neighbourhoods, they wish there was something more the city could do to lend a hand.

“At this point, like, we’re not making any sales,” said Kirouac. “It kind of gets to the point where you’re kind of concerned about how the winter’s going to go.”

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