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We’re not visiting downtown Salt Lake City as much during the pandemic. Here’s why there is hope.

New study suggests many Utahns are eager to return, especially once arts and entertainment venues come back on line.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A man wearing a mask in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. A new survey suggests that while many visitors and office workers have avoided the city center since March, interest in downtown remains high.

Lots of visitors have shied away from or curtailed their usual trips to downtown Salt Lake City since March, but new data suggests this is more of a “pandemic pause” than a permanent pullback.

Public interest in the city center’s arts and entertainment venues has reached its highest level in five years, according to a benchmark survey of Utahns conducted in early September, even though many of those attractions remain shuttered due to COVID-19.

The poll, sponsored by Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance, also points to a potential rebound effect as worries over the coronavirus pandemic start to lift and entertainment and cultural events resume.

Roughly one in five said they would visit downtown more often for performances or arts events in the next 12 months, and 55% said they’d visit with the same frequency they did before, while 22% said they’d visit downtown less often — up from just 5% in the previous survey.

Dining, shopping and nightlife remain big draws to the city center. Interest in these downtown attractions in the latest poll consistent with or surpassing levels seen in past years. And one in five residents said they were interested in living downtown, a number that has stayed remarkably consistent in polls since 2016.

About 65% of those that said they planned to visit downtown more mentioned COVID-19 and related performance-venue closures had hampered their leisure trips to the city center, with many now expecting that to ease.

Downtown renaissance

Those signs have city and business officials envisioning a wave of renewed enthusiasm for gatherings and cultural activity in the urban core post-pandemic, akin to the historic upsurge in creativity and community outpourings that followed the bubonic plague of the mid-1300s.

“We’re holding this idea of a renaissance driven by arts and culture in the coming years as part of the response to what we’ve all suffered,” said alliance Executive Director Dee Brewer.

The poll, conducted by Riverton-based Lighthouse Research, quizzed 600 Utahns about their views of downtown in brief phone surveys in early September. The benchmark survey of sentiment toward the city center is conducted yearly.

Notably, the poll highlights perennial issues with downtown, separate from COVID-19. Respondents complained about traffic, parking, panhandlers and crowds as continued deterrents.

Even with its hints at a robust recovery, the survey also chronicles the recent and devastating impact for many downtown retailers, hotels, eateries, bars and service providers from the pandemic, with visits to the city center down by nearly half over the past six months.

Remote work and business travel

Downtown merchants have raised dire concerns that after months of reduced commercial activity due to the coronavirus, diminished foot traffic this holiday season — typically a time of peak earnings — could push them to the financial edge.

Despite the state’s late spring economic reopening, three of four downtown office workers still are dialing in from home most days, according to other metrics. Officials say that’s likely to hold firm at least into January.

Business travel, leisure tourism and hotel stays — a lifeline for many merchants — are currently as low as a third of normal levels. And with large gatherings discouraged, arts patrons, moviegoers and Utah Jazz fans are staying away.

Salt Lake County announced recently that the city’s four key arts venues — Abravanel Hall, Capitol Theatre, Eccles Theater and Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center — would remain closed through February due to COVID-19 concerns.

The share of poll respondents who had visited City Creek Center, the two-block shopping center on Salt Lake City’s Main Street, the prior month was down sharply, at 27% in 2020 compared to as high as 47% in the previous four years.

Results showed a similar drop for The Gateway shopping and entertainment district on the west end of downtown. Trolley Square along 700 East and Fashion Place in Murray saw their visits fall by about half as much.

Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, acknowledged that downtown retailers and restaurants have suffered heavily, especially with office employees working remotely in droves and showcase venues dark.

Miller praised merchants for displaying “creativity and grit in adapting to welcome customers safely.” The chamber has backed a seven-point oath for businesses that includes social distancing, mask-wearing and other health protections as part of its “Stay Safe to Stay Open” campaign.

Poll findings, which carried a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, suggest people have been visiting at a greatly reduced clip.

Respondents reported roughly two trips downtown since March for shopping and entertainment and a little less than one visit for religious worship. The average office worker has come downtown roughly 11 times for work reasons in the past six months. Nearly 50% said they had visited downtown for a performance or to see art of some kind over the past year.

Those numbers are as low as half what they’ve been in previous years, with the biggest drops not surprisingly coming in entertainment and dining.

And while 79% said they weren’t interested, the 20% of respondents who said they would consider living downtown cited convenience and proximity to attractions as main motivators.

One in five of poll respondents said a lower cost of living in the urban core and better availability of affordable housing would boost their interest in a move to the heart of the city.

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