Montreal’s downtown merchants ‘prudently optimistic’ as government workers return


Quebec said it would start bringing its 60,000 employees — most of whom have been working remotely during the pandemic — back to the office Monday.

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Downtown merchants see next Monday’s return of civil servants to the workplace as a key step along the road to economic recovery.

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Quebec said this week it would start bringing its 60,000 employees — most of whom have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic — back to the office Monday. Staffers will initially be expected to spend at least two days a week on site. By Jan. 14, about half of government employees who telework should be at least partly back in the office, Quebec said.

Downtown Montreal’s economy is still reeling from the temporary loss of an estimated 300,000 office workers who plied their trade daily in the central business district until March 2020. A recent study found 41 per cent of stores and restaurants in office buildings or métro and train stations were permanently or temporarily closed as of late September.

While business has picked up this fall, thanks in part to the return of about 100,000 university students, the hope now is that private employers will soon follow Quebec’s lead in bringing staffers back.

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“I see this as a catalyst,” Paul-André Goulet, who owns several Sports Experts stores, including the flagship Ste-Catherine St. W. location at the corner of Mansfield St., said Thursday in an interview.

“Every little bit of good news helps. What’s important here isn’t so much the number of people who are coming back but the signal that Quebec is sending to the business community. It’s not just any employer talking — it’s the government. Essentially, Quebec is saying that the worst is behind us. People can start living again. It won’t fix everything, but we hope other employers will follow suit.”

Some, like Vallier Dufour, co-founder and owner of the Sésame restaurant group, are keeping their guard up.

“It’s nice to have, but it’s far too early to say if this will bring business back,” said Dufour, whose company owns a restaurant next to L’Astral music club on Ste-Catherine. “COVID-19 has been a long living nightmare, so we’re going to play it by ear. I’m keeping my expectations low.”

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Dufour’s caution seems appropriate. It will probably be a while before lunchtime crowds descend on downtown Montreal shops and businesses the way they used to.

Most employers contacted for this story said their back-to-work policies will probably result in staffers continuing to work remotely several days a week. Many employees are requesting hybrid schedules that let them work at the office two or three days a week.

Investissement Québec, the province’s investment arm, is adopting a hybrid approach that will see employees start to return Jan. 10, spokesperson Isabelle Fontaine said Thursday. Hydro-Québec, meanwhile, is planning to bring workers back sometime in early 2022. Employees will need to spend at least one day a week in the office d uring the first eight weeks, spokesperson Caroline Des Rosiers said.

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At Mouvement Desjardins, Quebec’s biggest financial services co-operative, employees will receive detailed back-to-the-office timelines at the start of December, spokesperson Chantal Corbeil said. The return “will be gradual, and will take place in several phases,” she said.

Despite the empty office towers, it’s not all doom and gloom in the city centre . Businesses such as Sports Experts have actually seen sales pick up this year, Goulet said.

Pedestrian traffic downtown soared 77 per cent between June 1 and Oct. 31, according to data compiled by the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. From September to October, the increase was 45 per cent.

Geneviève Touchette, general manager of Le Central food court on St-Laurent Blvd., is hoping the imminent return of civil servants will translate into much-needed revenue stability. Her establishment, which had been closed for lunch on weekdays since the start of the pandemic, reopened for midday operations Thursday.

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“This could really give us a spark,” she said. “We’re going to step things up. I’m prudently optimistic.”

Le Central is located inside Carré St-Laurent , a new building that houses about 200 employees of Quebec’s immigration ministry. It stands a stone’s throw from Complexe Desjardins, another hub of provincial government activity.

Having opened its doors in October 2019, the food court shut down five months later when Premier François Legault put the economy on pause as COVID-19 infections soared.

While recent cultural events such as September’s scaled-down jazz festival have resulted in busy evenings, other weeknights have been very quiet, Touchette said.

“Things have been chaotic,” she said. “It’s hard to have precise plans during the pandemic. Everything’s in flux.”

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Merchants such as Touchette are eagerly awaiting the start of the holiday shopping season, which will see a Christmas market open downtown and a new skating rink built at the corner of Clark and Ste-Catherine Sts. The trick, as always these days, will be to find enough workers to keep business humming.

“Hiring is extremely difficult now, and that’s on top of the last 18 months, which have been very trying,” she said. “We have to make sure we don’t burn ourselves out because we need to make it to next summer’s festival season. This is a marathon.”

ftomesco@postmedia.com

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