MONTREAL - Bar hopping, shopping and dining out in downtown Montreal are taking a hit due to ongoing student protests that business owners say are chasing their customers away due to traffic headaches.
The owner of downtown landmark Ziggy's Pub, frequented by the late author Mordecai Richler, said his patrons aren't sticking around for after-work drinks. He estimates business has dropped 60 per cent.
"A lot of people, as soon as the day is finished, they get into their cars and go back home," said Ziggy Eichenbaum, whose pub is on Crescent Street, a well-known destination for restaurants and bars.
"You walk around downtown at night and you could take a bowling ball and throw it," Eichenbaum said Wednesday.
"If you don't hit a student, you won't hit anybody. You won't hit a client."
The demonstrations over increased tuition fees of several hundred dollars per year continued on Wednesday with a group of student protesters storming into a downtown university, many of them with their faces covered by masks, and disrupting classes.
The student unrest has lasted 14 weeks with almost daily demonstrations. Only one-third of Quebec students are actually on declared strikes, but the conflict has created considerable social disorder and has included smoke bombs that shut down Montreal's subway system.
The Quebec government was looking at the possibility of adopting emergency legislation — a law reportedly laden with financial penalties for people who have played a role in encouraging the ongoing disruption, which began in late February.
The owner of Thursday's restaurant, also on the popular Crescent Street, said he has about 20 per cent fewer customers, which he called the "difference between a profit and a loss."
"It's been devastating," said Bernard Ragueneau. "Nobody wants to go downtown. We're actually being held hostage."
Tourists and locals aren't frequenting the street as much, going from bar to restaurant to bar as they normally do, because of the demonstrations, he said.
"Forget it. Bar hopping is gone," Ragueneau said. "We're being held hostage."
The Montreal Chamber of Commerce estimated that business overall is down 15 per cent at retailers and restaurant owners in the downtown core and student protests have cost several million dollars in economic damage to the city.
"The fear is night-time demonstrations, which results in some streets being closed, and it leads people to want to go other neighbourhoods than the downtown," said Michel Leblanc, the chamber's president and CEO.
"It's not a worry about violence that's keeping people away, it's more worry about congestion," Leblanc said of traffic tie-ups and detours resulting from the protests.
Leblanc said the long-term worry is the protests will result in people becoming used to avoiding downtown activities.
"We've signalled to the government that there will be repercussions and we hope the conflict will be settled quickly."
Some merchants worry the students will try to disrupt the Grand Prix Formula One race, which is expected to bring in tens of millions of dollars to Montreal's economy when it's held on the weekend of June 9.
"We've got two weeks before the Grand Prix for the mayor and the premier to decide no more masks," he said of protesters who have hidden their faces.
Students have already blocked bridges, disrupted shareholder meetings for Power Corp. (TSX:POW) and the National Bank (TSX:NA) and entered workplaces where mining companies are located.
Meanwhile, police costs have escalated. Montreal police have temporarily hired 150 officers due to the protests and the police union has said overtime costs were expected to be between $2 million and $3 million. The Quebec provincial police overtime bill was estimated at $1.5 million.
However, Tourisme Montreal says the student demonstrations have had no impact so far on the number of visitors coming to the city.
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