As cities around the country prepare to welcome back office workers who’ve been on the job at home, there are big questions about just who will return and what post-pandemic downtowns will look like.
“There’s no one downtown,” laments Brenda Lamb, who owns Candyland stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns.
“There’s no more lunch hour,” Lamb went on to explain. "That’s what’s been kind of a shock to us, not getting ready that lunch hour and knowing that nothing else goes on besides waiting on customers during that lunch hour so we’ve kind of changed our daily routine here.”
Lamb fears it’s going to remain relatively deserted in the downtowns going forward. She's convinced many people who once were her customers will continue working from home long after the coronavirus pandemic ends.
“I think that the corporates and the owners of these businesses that employ these people are going to realize they’re going to save a lot of money by not having real estate,” Lamb said.
In March, downtown Minneapolis's largest employer, Target, announced plans to vacate nearly one-third of its downtown office space, saying the people who worked there would continue working remotely.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, skyways that bustled with activity before the pandemic are oddly quiet now, even during the lunch hour. Many small retailers and restaurants are either temporarily closed or sit vacant. There are just not enough people to sell stuff to anymore.
"It’s difficult,” said Junich Abematsu ,who owns a small sushi restaurant in a skyway adjacent to the iconic IDS Center in Minneapolis. “I don’t think it’s going to be the same as it used to be, but I think it will get a little bit better than right now.”
Even downtown boosters acknowledge their districts will never be the same following the pandemic.
Steve Cramer heads the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the Downtown Improvement District. He said Target's large scaling back is an outlier, but he expects demand for space to decrease to some degree in the short term.
“I think we have to be realistic that there is going to be this process of resetting the downtown economy and it’s not going to be exactly like it was before,” Cramer said. “But it’s not going be a collapse, it’s going to be a reset and there are still some things you can only do downtown.”
Cramer said he thinks a decrease in demand for office space in Minneapolis will drive down rent pricing, which he predicts will open new opportunities for businesses that previously couldn’t afford to be downtown.
Although demand for downtown office space has decreased in the Twin Cities, rents have not yet been decreasing, said Jeff Jiovanazzo of the Fortune 500 commercial real estate firm CBRE.
“We are in that wait and see phase right now,” Jiovanazzo said.
Employers and employees are trying to figure out how to proceed, but Jiovanazzo thinks many businesses will want employees back in the office. And he’s expecting many workers will want to return as well, especially younger less-senior employees who want to build their careers.
He expects workers to begin return in large numbers at the end of the summer and he thinks the return will build on itself.
“The skyways will have foot traffic and people are going to need to see that for themselves to start to feel like we’re back,” Jiovanazzo said.
He also said the roughly 50,000 people that live in and around downtown Minneapolis have become an increasingly important part of the downtown economy.
Back in St. Paul, Alfred Foster is munching on a box of popcorn he just bought from Candyland — no waiting. Foster, 67, drives a city bus in downtown St. Paul and lives north of downtown Minneapolis. He’s optimistic about a robust return to near normal in the heart of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“They’re coming back,” he said. “You can see people coming back on the bus, so you know downtown is going to open back up.”