AUSTIN, Texas - People are beginning to return to downtown Austin. However, the list of downtown businesses closing or moving to other parts of the city continues to grow.
Downtown Austin Alliance CEO Dewitt Peart said foot traffic has dropped by about 80% in the downtown corridor and no one is really sure when that's going to change.
In March, Austin's stay home orders emptied buildings, canceled events, and turned a once-bustling city into a ghost town almost overnight. “Without offices and hotels there’s just nothing down here and there wasn’t for months,” said Craig Staley, co-owner of Royal Blue Grocery.
Seven months later after closures, visitors and workers are slowly trickling back into the heart of the city, but still not enough of them to keep even some of Austin's most well-loved businesses going.
“We have three stores in the corridor of downtown and they are effectively going out of business. Right now, [the Congress Avenue] one’s been closed for seven months the other two are losing money every single day,” Staley said.
“Our pedestrian traffic downtown is at about 20% of what we were experiencing pre-COVID, pre-pandemic. So we're down 80% in terms of pedestrians on the sidewalks,” said Peart.
The most difficult decision for business owners is how long they can sustain a significant drop in revenue and whether it's worth it to continue waiting for businesses, events, and tourists to return.
“They just can’t go this long without a light at the end of the tunnel. If we all knew, “Okay, it’s going to be August 2021 and everybody gets to re-open,” there’s a target for reopening. The unknown is too much,” Staley said.
“I don't envision that we will see more than 50% of the businesses deciding to close, but I would also anticipate, once the clientele comes back, those storefronts will become quickly occupied,” said Peart.
Staley has kept his Congress Avenue shop closed since March. He's planning to reopen it this Thursday with adjusted hours. “We just decided we've got to give it a try,” Staley said.
Staley said another round of Paycheck Protection Program grants could help businesses like his hold on a little longer.
For now, businesses plan to work as a team to create an environment that brings foot traffic back to Congress Avenue in a safe way.
The city's Shop the Block pilot program will help them do just that.
“All the businesses are working together and we literally have 100 percent participation from everybody, so we’re all going to go out and use the street in front of us, and we’re going to have umbrellas and tables, and hope to have vendors and maybe music, and just kind of treat this whole block differently than it’s been treated before,” said Staley.