The COVID-19 pandemic didn't spare downtown Colorado Springs from a string of empty storefronts, restaurant closures and business disruptions over the last 18 months.
But the Springs' urban area has survived better than those of many cities, the Downtown Partnership advocacy group believes, and some businesses say they hope their struggles are behind them as they position themselves for better times.
Among positive signs for downtown, the area enjoyed an increase in tourist and visitor numbers over the summer, according to the Downtown Partnership. More visitors, in turn, contributed to a boost in sales taxes collections in the area.
Downtown also has seen more workers return to their offices when compared with the same time last year. Still, those returning employees aren't necessarily back in the office five days a week and downtown's daytime workplace population continues to lag from two years ago.
"We're faring remarkably better than many urban areas are," said Susan Edmondson, the Downtown Partnership's president and CEO. "But that's not to say there aren't still challenges."
Some of the downtown optimism is based on data the Downtown Partnership collects from Placer Labs, a California company that uses mobile phone app locator services to track downtown visits and length of stays by area residents, tourists and employees.
The company tracks visitors in an area defined by the Downtown Development Authority, a quasi-governmental agency whose boundaries extend roughly to Colorado College on the north, Fountain Boulevard on the south, Prospect Street on the east and Interstate 25 on the west. The area is several blocks larger than downtown's core.
Visitors are defined as people who come to the area for 15 minutes or longer to shop, dine, go to a museum or movie or make use of business and government services, among other activities.
In August, visitors to downtown totaled 1.03 million, according to the Placer Labs data. The total was roughly 45% more than the 709,066 visitors to downtown in August 2020.
That's no surprise given that a year ago many area residents continued to embrace takeout food and deliveries even after the expiration of a statewide stay-at-home order. At the same time, the local tourism industry wrestled with a slowdown in leisure travel for portions of last year.
But the 1.03 million visitors in August even surpassed — albeit by a slight 1.4% — the 1.02 million visitors to downtown in August 2019, before the pandemic took hold, the Placer Labs data show.
A boost in area tourism helped bring more people downtown of late, but residents from other parts of the city have returned, too, Edmondson said.
"Evenings are great," she said. "People miss their favorite restaurants. There's really that pent-up demand to go out to eat and see friends. We are crazy busy in the evenings, certainly Friday and Saturday nights, but other nights as well.
"We want that level of, everyone out, walking on the street, running into colleagues, grabbing a cup of coffee," Edmondson added. "That's what makes downtown different than other places. And we do see it. We would just love to see more of it."
City sales tax collections on meals and other retail purchases in the Downtown Development Authority area totaled $47.8 million in June, the most recent month available. That's up 13.7% from the nearly $42 million collected in the non-pandemic June 2019.
More downtown visitors contributed to that increase, though the Downtown Partnership also says greater numbers of businesses, storefronts and restaurants that have opened in the area over the last two years also helped push collections higher.
"That is an indicator of a rebound, but also an indicator of growth," Laurel Prud'homme, the Downtown Partnership's communications vice president, said of the area's increase in sales tax collections. "We have more businesses open this year than we did in 2020 or 2019. So, we would hope that with more businesses opening, we would see this increase."
As part of the sales tax collections in June, food and beverage sales totaled $8.7 million, a 7.4% increase over the $8.1 million in June 2019.
The revenues from food and beverage sales in June might have been even higher, but some downtown restaurants and bars have cut back on operating hours or days of the week because they can't hire the staff they need, Prud'homme said.
Downtown employees, meanwhile, totaled 205,216 in August, nearly 16% higher than the 177,038 employees working downtown in August 2020, according to Placer Labs data.
Even so, the number of employees in August fell nearly 40% from 337,859 in August 2019. Looked at another way, downtown has recaptured just 60% of its previous downtown office population, an indication that some businesses continue to let employees work remotely at least part of the time.
"Many more offices have said they're back at work, but the new normal for back at work may mean new policies around employees being physically present maybe just two or three days a week," Edmondson said. "It's going to take more time to figure out how much of that becomes a permanent shift."
Downtown retailers and restaurants are looking forward to the day when office workers and other employees return full time to the area, which would further revitalize businesses that have sought to hang on over the last 18 months.
"The focus on keeping small businesses open was really strong in 2020," said Peri Bolts, co-owner of Eclectic CO., a retail co-op on North Tejon Street that houses multiple vendors and artists who sell apparel, gifts and other items. "And we have seen that continue to carry over, which has been really promising."
Tourism boosted Eclectic CO. during the summer and revenue returned to pre-pandemic levels, she said. But foot traffic from downtown office employees on their lunch breaks or at the end of the work day still lags, Bolts said.
"Full time, in person, office workers are not anywhere near their levels before," said Bolts, who's also a member of the Greater Downtown Colorado Springs Business Improvement District. "So that's definitely impacting downtown overall, you know, restaurants, shopping — all of that."
King's Chef Diner, the longtime downtown favorite known for its comfort food and with locations at 110 E. Costilla St. and 131 E. Bijou St., isn't operating at full capacity.
But owner Gary Geiser said the reduced capacity helped the restaurant's Bijou Street location focus on quality over quantity when it came to serving customers.
"To make sure that the customer is really well taken care of, we have to do extra sanitizing in between the table turns," Geiser said. "So it just kind of took a new mindset approach and that's really seem to do well."
Despite the service improvements, Geiser said he's operating with reduced hours and that's in no small part because of a struggle to find workers.
The refrain is common among business owners, including Richard Skorman, whose Poor Richard's complex on North Tejon features a book store, toy shop, cafe and restaurant.
Skorman said he has had to compete with Uber, Amazon and DoorDash when it came to finding workers.
"The issue is the amount of opportunities," Skorman said.
Finding consistent daycare during frequent quarantine closures at schools also was a challenge for working parents, Skorman said.
While Skorman also suffered from the lack of downtown foot traffic from office workers, he's seen a silver lining with an increased interest among book buyers.
"Because of COVID, there is computer fatigue," Skorman said. "There's a burnout factor with Kindles and that’s very encouraging for us expanding our new books."
On downtown's south side, owner Ari Howard said business at her Streetcar520 restaurant at 520 S. Tejon St. is on the upswing.
"It's light-years better than it was this time last year, that's for sure," she said.
Like other restaurateurs and retailers, Howard said the pandemic gave her a chance to step back and reevaluate her business — and she made changes.
With profits razor thin for restaurants, many owners rely on liquor sales to boost revenues, she said.
Lunches, however, were a money loser, Howard said. Her lunch crowd was more apt to drink ice tea than cocktails, yet her labor and operating costs were the same as during dinner.
As a result, she scrapped lunch. Streetcar520 now serves only dinner seven days a week, along with brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
Because she no longer serves lunch, she doesn't necessarily rely on daytime office workers as customers. Howard, however, has found a new group of customers.
She signed a sponsorship and marketing agreement with Weidner Field, the multiuse stadium at nearby Cimarron and Sahwatch streets. It opened in May and hosts Colorado Springs Switchbacks soccer games, concerts and other events.
Weidner Field is just a seven-minute walk from Streetcar520, and Howard's deal with the venue advertises her restaurant on digital signs and as part of public address announcements. In turn, she offers drink promotions for Switchbacks season-ticket holders and one-time attendees.
The deal has been a success, and she's seen "a huge influx" of first-time customers who have come downtown to the venue from other parts of the city, Howard said.
Howard also is looking forward to the planned development of more than 1,000 apartments around the stadium as proposed by Weidner Apartment Homes of suburban Seattle, the stadium's co-owner.
Those apartments would join other nearby multifamily projects opened in recent years, such as The Mae on Cascade, Casa Mundi and Blue Dot Place.
The stadium, new apartments and other development taking place on downtown's south side have given Howard hope for the future that might have been quashed because of the pandemic.
She's now negotiated another 10 years on her lease, but she wouldn't have done so if not for Weidner Field, the new downtown U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum that opened in July 2020 and the planned apartments.
"I always knew that this end of downtown had so much untapped potential and that soon, someday, somebody in the community would tap into it," Howard said. "And it finally happened."