Sep 15, 2021 - Business

Minneapolis' downtown scene sees some hopeful signs

Mary Tyler moore statue, with downtown in the background. Nicollet mall is empty

Mary Tyler Moore is still feeling lonely downtown. Photo: Nick Halter/Axios

Downtown Minneapolis appeared more alive last week than it's been in the past 18 months. Yet, the city's central business district remains a shell of its former self, despite workers trickling back into offices all summer.

  • I worked downtown for more than 10 years pre-pandemic, and assessed the streets and skyways last Wednesday.

State of play: Retailers and restaurants that rely on downtown workers had hoped last week would mark a major return, that is until the Delta variant disrupted everything.

  • One employee of a downtown office tower told Axios that building staff prepared for a big wave of workers called back to the office, but then several employers delayed their returns, school bus companies couldn't find drivers and parents grew uncertain about potential outbreaks at schools and day care centers.

By the numbers: About 36% of workers were back in the office as of early September, according to Minneapolis Downtown Council.

  • That's reflected in the skyways, where I counted 76 storefronts and found only 43% of them were in operation. That’s compared with a similar count I did in May, when 39% were in operation.

So who is back? While big employers with hundreds or thousands of workers have put off their returns, small, local companies — think law firms — have been back for weeks or months.

What's new: There are some good signs! Several restaurants had long lines, including both Green & The Grain locations, Jimmy John's and Skyway Wok. A Caribou Coffee shop in Fifth Street Towers had a sign on the window saying it would re-open on Sept. 15 for the first time since the pandemic hit.

  • With less competition, some of the restaurants that are open are seeing strong business — though it's uneven, as several had few customers.
  • People are moving back. The apartment vacancy rate in downtown had shot up to 10.4% early this year, but the Star Tribune reported this week that it’s back down to 7.2%.

Yes, but: While there was action in the skyways, the streets were eerily empty, considering the beautiful weather.

  • And who can blame people when so many street-level restaurants have remained closed and the food trucks that used to fight for parking spots are nowhere to be found?

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