May 9, 2023 - News

Downtown Indy slower to recover from pandemic

Mobile device activity in select downtown areas compared to pre-pandemic levels
Data: University of Toronto; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Three years on, downtown Indianapolis is still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing less than half the activity it once did.

  • That's according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

Why it matters: Downtowns, including Indy's, became ghost towns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying home as much as possible.

  • Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in means fewer people visiting restaurants, bars and shops.

Driving the news: Between December 2022 and February 2023, Indianapolis generated only 41% of the activity it did during the same period in 2019-2020.

How it works: The researchers essentially treated smartphones and other mobile devices as a proxy for their owners — if a device pings a nearby cell tower, it's a good bet that's where the device's owner is.

  • Of note: For this analysis, "downtown" is defined as areas of a given city with the highest employment density.
  • Indy's data used just the 46204 ZIP code, which excludes some areas traditionally thought of as part of the downtown core.

Zoom out: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most are still struggling to attract the foot traffic they once did, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

  • By the numbers: Salt Lake City (139%); Bakersfield, California, (118%) and Fresno, California, (115%) had among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of February (the most recent data available), as measured by estimated foot traffic.
  • San Francisco (32%), St. Louis (38%) and Portland, Oregon, (40%) had among the lowest.

The big picture: The analysis found downtowns that were slower to recover were typically older, denser areas reliant on professional or tech workers located within large metros where commuters relied heavily on cars for transportation.

  • All of this rings true for Indianapolis, said Taylor Schaffer, president and CEO of Downtown Indy Inc.

Yes, but: Local businesses and political leaders are increasingly trying to curtail remote and hybrid work, which could boost downtown recovery levels.

  • Schaffer said while office work and weekday business travel are still down, evening and weekend activity has picked up downtown.

Reality check: While downtown activity is one indicator of a city's economic health, it doesn't paint a full picture on its own.

  • The lure of better, springtime weather, meanwhile, might convince more people to head back into the city — to enjoy dinner and drinks al fresco, for instance.
  • Activities surrounding the Indy 500, such as this past weekend's mini-marathon and the upcoming 500 Festival Parade, bring thousands of people downtown, but a true recovery requires consistent traffic and can't rely on big events alone.

What's next: City government is partnering with organizations like Downtown Indy to improve the state of downtown. The city recently invested $3.5 million with the nonprofit for increased public safety patrols and cameras, cleaning teams and homeless outreach.

  • State lawmakers also created a mechanism for the city to impose a new tax on downtown property owners to fund downtown improvements long term.

The bottom line: Whether you feel like America's downtowns are once again thriving depends a lot on where you live.

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