Editor's note: The original version of this article included an incorrect date in the first paragraph.
The energy is palpable in downtown San Luis Obispo at lunchtime on Thursday, May 20, as visitors with and without face masks wander around the city's hub. Streets that were practically deserted a year ago are now buzzing again with shoppers, diners, and workers.
"We've seen a return of the downtown cycle," said Bettina Swigger, CEO of the Downtown SLO association. "There's the morning crowd, the lunch crowd, the afternoon crowd, the dinner crowd, and the nightlife. For a while, that wasn't happening. And that was very strange."
- Photo Courtesy Of Stephen Heraldo, Downtown Slo
- FARMERS IS BACK The Farmers' Market in downtown San Luis Obispo returned with a bang on May 6 after a more than yearlong hiatus, drawing 3,000 visitors.
With COVID-19 cases on the decline, vaccination numbers rising, and restrictions lifting, downtown business and civic leaders say they're finally seeing a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. On Thursday, May 6, the weekly downtown Farmers' Market returned to Higuera Street, ending a more than yearlong hiatus. The welcome back event drew about 3,000 people—a moment of progress.
"That feels really good," Swigger said. "Just having that activity back in the community ... we're rebuilding."
Downtown visitation has been up dramatically over the last couple of months, Swigger said, a fact that's not only evident by the increased foot traffic, but in parking and hotel statistics as well.
And yet, right alongside that fresh energy are scars from the pandemic. The empty storefronts—New Times counted 16 on Higuera and Monterey streets on May 20—are impossible to ignore.
Downtown business closures align with recently released economic data. According to REACH Central Coast, a local nonprofit that published a study this month on COVID-19 impacts, 40 percent fewer businesses in SLO and Santa Barbara counties had opened in February 2021 compared to March 2020. Most of the jobs lost during COVID-19—two-thirds of them, or about 37,000 jobs—came among low-wage workers, mostly in the tourism and hospitality industries.
"That includes many of the type of businesses that are supported by the people that patronize downtown," said Andrew Hackleman, the vice president at REACH Central Coast. "It's pretty intuitive that the customer-facing businesses saw the biggest impacts during COVID-19."
While the empty stores are a troubling sight, downtown advocates are confident that better days are ahead, and that the damage wasn't as bad as it might appear. Some businesses that closed over the pandemic had owners who were close to retiring, Swigger said. Others were national chains. Some closed only temporarily.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- VACANCIES Many storefronts in downtown SLO remain unoccupied coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the space that formerly held Beverly's Fabric & Crafts (pictured).
Laura Mullen, president of the nonprofit HumanKind Fair Trade on Monterey Street, said that the downtown shop survived the pandemic thanks to more online sales, holiday shopping, federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, and the community's continued support of local businesses.
"The way our customers supported our store, other stores, and restaurants ... it wasn't the visitors. It was the local people that wanted us to succeed," Mullen said. "If you look at a lot of the local businesses, they did what needed to be done to make it."
A wave of new businesses is expected to open downtown soon, Swigger said, which will help fill some of the vacancies.
"You can't see it now," Swigger said. "But two months from now, it will look a lot different."
SLO Economic Development Manager Lee Johnson confirmed that those downtown properties are seeing "a lot of activity, with people engaged and looking."
"A lot of them are small local businesses coming in," Johnson said. "All in all, considering we're coming out of a global pandemic and recession, there's a lot of interest and activity and good stuff happening.
"It takes a little time," he added. "It's faster to close than it is to open."
Swigger said that based on her meetings with other downtown association leaders across the country, she believes SLO is in a relatively good position after 15 months of COVID-19. With summer approaching, and two brand-new hotels now up and running downtown, Swigger believes that it's poised for a big comeback.
"The pandemic has been hard, and certainly a lot of businesses have been affected, but we don't have the towering skyscrapers full of abandoned offices," she said. "We didn't see the level of closures, in terms of business licenses, that we expected at the beginning of pandemic. ... I think our downtown in general is actually doing really, really well."
Parklets here to stay?
One big question for SLO coming out of COVID-19 is whether the city should make permanent any of the economic programs it ushered in during the pandemic—like parklets for restaurants.
The parklet experiment proved extremely popular, Johnson said, with many residents and businesses supporting the city's shift to a more outdoor- and pedestrian-centric downtown.
"I think it's been very positive," Johnson said. "We've had positive feedback from not only the businesses who have the parklets, but businesses who see that it brought more people downtown."
Parklets weren't the only change made to downtown in response to the pandemic. The city removed a lane of traffic on Higuera Street and replaced it with a bike lane and made the last stretch of Monterey Street going into Mission Plaza a one-way street. Other outdoor spaces, like Mission Plaza or private parking lots across the city, became new hubs for dining.
Johnson said that the SLO City Council will need to decide how much that it wants to keep going forward—in addition to how it wants to invest about $500,000 in economic recovery funds budgeted for 2021-22. The council is set to have a public study session on the topic on July 20.
"That's all kind of being developed at this point," Johnson said.
The city is likely to discuss introducing fees and design standards for the parklets. To date, SLO has not been charging businesses for their use of parklet space, which is usually a public sidewalk or on-street parking spot. Johnson noted that the city lost about $350,000 in parking revenue during the pandemic due to its parking rate reductions and parklet program.
While much remains in the air, Downtown SLO's Swigger praised the parklets as having "completely transformed the downtown environment," and believes many business owners and patrons will continue to want them around.
"That's created this really fun, more interesting, walkable experience downtown," Swigger said, adding about the policy change spurred on by the pandemic: "There are some silver linings." Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.