‘Things are not recovering’: Downtown Austin businesses continue to struggle during pandemic

Business

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Four months into the pandemic, downtown businesses remain extremely worried about their future.

According to the Downtown Austin Alliance’s survey, the number of businesses operating has gone down recently, meaning recovery isn’t happening for many.

“It is down 7% from a couple of months earlier, so things are not recovering,” said Dewitt Peart, Downtown Austin Alliance’s CEO.

He explained, “The future is really uncertain. What we’re hearing is that there are about 185 of those 770 storefronts that aren’t sure what the future holds or what they will do, so that’s a little bit concerning to us.”

“98% of my foot traffic was really hotel guests and a lot of the offices, people working downtown,” said Csilla Somogyi, who owns a boutique on Congress Avenue.

Somogyi is now making custom dresses at home, working when she can during the day.

“I have been able to ask my family to help with watching the kids about a couple of times a week, and that allows me about 10, 12 hours of work per week,” she said. “Also working on things after they go to bed between about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.”

According to the Downtown Austin Alliance, about 35,000 people a day used to walk down Congress Avenue. That number went down to 5,000 on July 4th.

“The last four and a half months have not been easy for anybody, especially business owners,” Somogyi said.

Peart told KXAN, “What we’re learning is how much of the retail might be built around, counting on those visitors, those outside visitors to Austin.”

The Downtown Austin Alliance is on the Austin Chamber’s Opening Central Texas for Business Task Force.

“I think we need to begin strategizing about how can we look at retail downtown and tailor it more towards a local clientele,” said Peart.

He also said, “As we’re thinking about programming related to Republic Square Park, we’re looking at what we can do in the outdoor environment.”

Somogyi said she’s optimistic things will get better, but said business owners will need help with childcare, depending on what happens with schools, and with rent.

“It’s, you know, some sort of network or support,” she said about issues related to childcare, especially if schools remain closed for the time being.

In regards to rent, she said, “How long do I really want to sustain that or anybody would want to, but I would like my clients to find me back at my original location.”

Peart said the city buying properties could be one way to help.

“Acquiring real estate, to preserve it, and to create these venues that everyone wants to preserve, that can absolutely be an economic development strategy,” he said. “Typically, you would see other cities have economic development corporations that would undertake those types of initiatives, and we’re going to be in a situation in Austin where we will absolutely need those types of tools.”

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