Downtown businesses hit hard by pandemic turn to locals for support

Downtown Austin is a completely different place than it was one year ago. 

For now, the days of busy Congress Avenue are a thing of the past. 

"So all of our office buildings are empty around here. A lot of our restaurants have had to significantly change their hours or close altogether," said Teghan Hahn, director of sales and merchandising at Wild About Music. 

RELATED: List of Austin businesses lost during COVID-19 pandemic is growing

Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down business across the nation, business owners in downtown Austin are still facing tough decisions about whether to continue on, shut down, or move locations. 

"You can really tell that the downtown businesses are lagging behind other neighborhoods," said Jennifer Wiebrand, board chair at the Downtown Austin Alliance. 

"We've definitely gotten a lot more creative. We're lucky to have five different locations here in Austin between our different businesses... Congress Avenue is definitely the slowest store out of all of them," Hahn said. 

RELATED: Austin businesses say it's even more important to shop local this year

The reason has to do with who visits downtown most often. "The weekdays were for the office workers, weekends for our visitors. And now, neither of them are really here," said Hahn. 

A Downtown Austin Alliance study on Congress Avenue foot traffic found the same. In 2019, weekday pedestrians averaged 88,000 per day. In 2020, weekday totals averaged 28,500 per day. That's a difference of about 59,500 people each day.

On weekends it's a similar trend, though not as drastic. The difference from 2019 to 2020 averaged about 33,500 hundred people Friday-Sunday. 

RELATED: Black-owned businesses in Austin you can support

"We're still seeing some pretty good leisure Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, but our Sundays through Thursdays are just not, they're not back yet. And they're not going to be back yet. And the reality is, is that your favorite restaurant, your favorite toy store, your favorite venue can't survive on just weekend traffic," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Austin. 

The change in traffic has somewhat made old Austin new again, at least temporarily. "So it's a great opportunity to go explore downtown the way you might have 15 years ago," Wiebrand said. 

"It's been great to see a lot more of the locals coming out and really enjoying their city," said Hahn. 

The DAA has teamed up with business owners to implement new programs to keep local business alive. That includes expanding outdoor storefronts through a Shop the Block program and teaming up with the city to employ musicians to play outside of Second Street businesses.

RELATED: Visit Austin encouraging customers to support local businesses

"What we know about life in the past 11 months, almost 12, is that the magic bullet is not coming. The white knights will not show up and there will not be a cure-all magic wand, but I do think that, through a series of small things, we can make a difference," Wiebrand said. 

Meanwhile, Visit Austin said as soon as COVID case numbers become more manageable and it's safe to bring tourists back, they will work to fill up the downtown district with visitors ready for something different. 

RELATED: Austin-area businesses can now move to 75% occupancy

"That's what Austin is. That's why people come here because they don't find Austin at home. They have to come here for it," Noonan said. 

Visit Austin said there are a few conventions planned in Austin this summer. Those are mainly for medical personnel because the belief is they will be vaccinated and not pose a risk.