Visitors loved closure of Banff Avenue for strolling but some issues arose, mayor says

Banff is evaluating the success of an experiment that turned its main drag into a pedestrian-only zone for a few months during the pandemic.

The mountain town closed a stretch of Banff Avenue, its main thoroughfare, from June 5 to Sept. 11. Vehicles were not allowed in the 100 and 200 blocks, between Buffalo Street and Wolf Street.

A portion of Caribou Street between Banff Avenue and the Bear Street laneway and between Banff Avenue and the Beaver Street laneway were closed as well.

The closures were intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 by allowing for at least two metres of space for pedestrians and cyclists, and to attract more foot traffic to local businesses.

“I would say that it kind of upped the livelihood on the street. Anyone I talked to, they loved the vibe,” said Meesh Souliere, general manager of the Banff Ave Brewing Co. “We only had a small patio … but it did help.”

Now that the experiment has ended, Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen told the Calgary Eyeopener that the closure had its hiccups — but data suggests that over 90 per cent of visitors loved the change.

So much, in fact, that some nicknamed the stretch “Banffsterdam” on social media.

“I said to some business owners … [that] city council’s job is to try and attract people here, to the destination. And I absolutely believe that what we did this summer was an attractant,” Sorensen said. 

“I think people heard about it, and I think they came.”

But was it perfect, and did everybody love it?

“No,” Sorensen said.

Better than anticipated

The spring decision to close Banff Avenue was made quickly — and with safety in mind — to avoid crowded sidewalks in the popular tourist town, Sorensen said.

While it’s hard to determine if the measure helped Banff avoid outbreaks, Sorensen said that since March, when the pandemic began impacting Alberta, it has had only 15 cases of COVID-19.

“Nobody wants to speak too soon. We do not know where this is going, and where it will go in the next few weeks,” Sorensen said.

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In addition to providing an additional safety measure, the change benefited businesses, too, she said. 

Restaurants that are operating at 50 per cent capacity were able to expand their patios into the street and increase their patronage, while more foot traffic helped the stores along Banff Avenue.

And outdoor retailing — which is normally prohibited in the town — was also allowed, to help keep indoor spaces from getting busy or losing customers.

“Most businesses, I would say, have survived and at least have been able to cover their costs. So, we did better than what was anticipated in those very early days, absolutely,” Sorensen said.

In April and May, most businesses, hotels and restaurants projected summer occupancies and revenues between 10 and 20 per cent of what they would normally experience for the season, Sorensen said.

But many are suggesting that they are finishing the summer with 40 to 50 per cent instead.

Unemployment rate uncertain

Even so, Sorensen acknowledged that issues did arise.

“The word ‘fair’ comes up a fair bit. It’s hard to do the same thing for everybody. And so, in some instances, it was suggested that some businesses did better [than others] because the town was assisting them,” she said.

Sorensen also acknowledged that though many businesses reported that they did better than expected, it is difficult for Banff to determine its unemployment rate.

In April, it experienced up to an 85 per cent unemployment rate as businesses and people reacted to ordered closures and self-isolation directives, according to MLA Miranda Rosin.

“That entire economy has really crumbled in the last couple weeks,” the provincial representative for Banff-Kananaskis said at the time.

Since then, many short-term residents went home as the pandemic became more serious, and Sorensen said the town’s population — and thus, its unemployment rate — is now a question mark.

“Mostly, the short-term residents … went home,” Sorensen said. 

“If you ask me what the population of Banff is today, I actually don’t know the answer.”

With files from Sarah Rieger, Meghan Grant and the Calgary Eyeopener.

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