May 4, 2023 - Business

Tampa's downtown is still struggling to recover from pandemic

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

Downtown activity in Tampa is still below pre-pandemic rates, according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

Why it matters: Even as Florida stayed notoriously open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, downtowns became ghost towns while people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying home as much as possible.

  • As the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in has so far meant fewer downtown workers visiting restaurants, bars and shops.
  • That has big implications for city economies, which have historically relied on commuting workers who spend money before, during and after their daily 9-5s.

The big picture: 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.

Zoom in: Mobile device activity in downtown Tampa was 84% of what it was pre-pandemic, ranking 10th out of 63 metro areas in the nation.

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%) have among the lowest.

How it works: The researchers 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.

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

What's next: Many cities are experimenting with efforts to rethink their downtown neighborhoods — including, most notably, office-to-residential building conversions, which are poised to skyrocket in the coming years.

  • Yet that idea is more cumbersome than it might seem, in part because the design and shape of some office buildings make them ill-suited for residential use.
  • Communities like Midtown Tampa and St. Petersburg's Gas Plant District are being built with office, living and recreational space in mind.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Tampa Bay.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Tampa Bay stories

No stories could be found

Tampa Baypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Tampa Bay.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more