Downtown economy struggles to return to the new norm, much less the normal norm

by Ben OlivoJune 14, 2020
Houston Street on the afternoon of Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Houston Street on Thursday afternoon. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Three Saturdays ago, downtown's economy came to a screeching halt for the second time this year. Then, it seemed on the path to recovery as businesses were starting to reopen following the Covid-19 shutdown. Then the big riot happened the same night. It had stemmed from the Black Lives Matter protest earlier in the day, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis the week prior. Police officials said 39 businesses suffered broken windows and that buildings and other structures in the vicinity of Alamo Plaza, and at La Villita and Hemisfair, were vandalized.

The next day, dozens and dozens of volunteers mobilized downtown to help clean up. But there were so many more who drove down to gawk and take pictures of the damage. After that the streets returned to being post-apocalyptically empty as they had been in March at the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown.

"That's been the double whammy for everybody," Alejandra Salazar Herrán, owner of Casa Salazar on East Houston Street, a Mexican wares shop that's been open for 24 years, said in a recent interview.

Herrán reopened two Fridays ago after being closed since late March. She opened six days after police used teargas and other deterrents to disburse clusters of agitators in and around Alamo Plaza, two blocks from her store. She got a call recently from a longtime customer with a question.

"She said, 'How safe is it to go downtown?,' " Herrán recalled recently. "I said, 'This is the time to come down. There's plenty of parking.' "

That phone call took place shortly after the riot. To be fair, whatever stigma downtown had from incidents in recent weeks—compared to the peaceful gatherings in protest of police brutality that have drawn thousands to downtown S.A. in the same timeframe—seems to have eroded, as more people are starting to visit shops and restaurants again.

Business at some street-level restaurants like La Panaderia on Houston Street appear to be picking up. Other establishments seem to be struggling. While some haven't yet reopened. On the River Walk, diners seem to be back in spurts. With the Alamo closed indefinitely, the River Walk now takes over as downtown's stand-alone top attraction.

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Centro San Antonio CEO Matt Brown said there's something to be said about downtown's significance as a gathering place.

"When civic life is centered here, you'll get protests and vigils," Brown said. "These are things that are a part of a healthy democracy and an important living, breathing downtown. And so I think that's all great. If people are marching out in the suburbs, then there's something wrong with your downtown."

In an interview two weeks ago, Brown said downtown S.A. isn't unique in its recent struggles, as most other big American cities are enduring the same things.

"It's a slow rebuilding of confidence and security, that going out to retail and restaurants is safe for someone's health," Brown said. "Our belief (is) the perception of individuals is driving how fast things open up."

Business is not as bad as it was days after the riot. It's not great, either.

"It's been dead," Hoorvash Cyrous, supervisor at the fossil and crystal shop Trésor on the 300 block of East Houston Street, said late last week. "It was really good that week before the riot, because it was just the beginning when everybody was excited to come out."

Cyrous said she will likely reach out to their regulars via email and start offering merchandise a deeply discounted prices.

Cyrous, like most retailers downtown, rely on tourists, because there still aren't enough San Antonians living downtown which is largely due to the lack of supply—and that was pre-coronavirus. Conventions are still suspended, although there are signals some may happen as planned in July, including the Texas High School Coaches Association's annual meeting.

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Cory and Kim Jefferies of Boerne make a purchase from Abe Cortez, co-owner of Paris Hatters, 119 Broadway, on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
Cory and Kim Jefferies of Boerne make a purchase from Abe Cortez, co-owner of Paris Hatters, 119 Broadway, on Saturday, June 6, 2020. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

At Paris Hatters on Broadway, which has been in business since 1917, co-owner Myrna Cortez said it was unusual for the hat store to have to close during the shutdown.

"It's been very taxing," Cortez said recently. "There's been no tourism, and tourism is a very important part of any downtown business."

Paris Hatters didn't absorb any of the vandalism from three weeks ago, even though it's in the main hot spot. Of course, the store's windows are also enclosed in a cage.

Other businesses still haven't reopened since the riot. Around the corner, places like El Vaqueros and Mar Silver Jewelry were still closed late last week.

Arthur Perez, owner of Cadeaux gift shop on North St. Mary's Street, on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Arthur Perez, owner of Cadeaux gift shop on North St. Mary's Street, talks to a customer on Thursday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Many of the larger employers haven't yet called back their office workers downtown.

Arthur Perez, owner of Cadeaux gift shop on North St. Mary's Street, relies on those office workers in the area, as it is surrounded by the largest office buildings downtown, including the Weston Centre and the former Bank of America building, now owned by USAA.

"After Mother's Day, it kind of died," Perez said. "There wasn't a reason to shop particularly downtown with (the absence of) tourism and vacationeers, and visitors and conventions. And then, of course, employees downtown. There wasn't a presence at all."

He said the shop has been surviving on appointment shopping and an increase in online sales. Walk-ins are also welcome, but they have to knock on the door to be let in, which many businesses are doing.

Throughout it all, the folks at Centro San Antonio have upped their game in terms of cleaning downtown. It's never been cleaner, Brown said. Workers have gone from simply cleaning sidewalks and street furniture to disinfecting them. The scale of cleaning has also increased. High-touch areas, from crosswalk buttons and railings, to business door handles and scooter handles and seats, are now being cleaned several times a day, Brown said.

For Brown, he said he'd prefer not to over persuading people to come back downtown. It's about preparing downtown as much as possible so when people feel comfortable coming back, amid Covid-19, Centro will be ready.

"If you feel compelled to contribute to the rehabilitation of our economy, helping people get back to work, helping small businesses get back on their feet—most of the businesses in our downtown on street level, those are small, individually-owned, minority-owned businesses—if you want to help them, please come down and buy something."

Related
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» Landlords asked to forgive 25% rent for tenants impacted by coronavirus
» Map: Where to pick up free breakfast and lunch while schools are closed for coronavirus
» How San Antonio’s taquerias are hurting during coronavirus outbreak
» Retailers close in compliance with coronavirus order, leaving downtown nearly lifeless

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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