After a horrific 2020, downtown Salt Lake City positioned for a post-pandemic rebound

Supporters say they learned a lot last year and see reason for hope in 2021.

Grit, hardship and optimism were all on display Tuesday as backers of downtown Salt Lake City merchants took stock of one of their more devastating economic years.

The coronavirus pandemic dealt deep blows to tourism, shopping and millions of ticket sales as well as the daily flow of office workers into the heart of Utah’s capital for most of 2020, pushing many retailers and hospitality providers into peril. Arts and cultural events — among the urban core’s main draws — have remained shuttered due to health worries.

“We all know individuals and businesses that are suffering during these trying times,” Kim Abrams, an executive with the investment firm Goldman Sachs and a Downtown Alliance board member, said at an online event.

While 2020′s take is sobering, the alliance’s annual benchmark of key downtown trends released Tuesday also sought to boost confidence in an economic rebound after COVID-19 — buoyed by continued rises in office and housing construction and a potential boom in its rapidly emerging life-sciences sector.

The virtual gathering also honored several merchants for innovating their way through the crisis. “The downtown community has learned something about our collective strength,” Abrams said, “and our capacity to rise together.”

Nearly 2 million square feet of new office, apartment and hotel space will come on line within the downtown area over the next two years, she and others noted, while the city remains a strong candidate to host another Winter Olympics in the next decade. Thirteen residential projects are currently underway in the urban center, speakers noted, and recent polls show one in five Utahns are interested in living downtown.

A separate survey recently found many Utahns anticipate they will visit downtown more often once the specter of COVID-19 vanishes. And on several current metrics, including relative costs of doing business, Utah’s central district remains well-learned among competing states to lure additional skilled workers, new employers and fresh investment capital, supporters said.

“For all of the challenges we are facing this year, you do not have to walk very far downtown to see that there is tangible evidence of growth and optimism,” said Dee Brewer, the alliance’s executive director.

Other details on 2020 also highlighted many of the dire problems created by the pandemic for so many downtown retailers, restaurateurs, tavern owners and personal-service providers.

Brewer described the alliance’s emergency assistance through the Salt Lake Chamber to hundreds of downtown merchants as they applied for millions of dollars in federal relief during the pandemic under the Paycheck Protection Program. It has helped businesses adopt necessary health measures to lift consumer confidence and stay open.

Uniformed patrols as part of the Downtown Street Ambassador program expanded dramatically last year to help deal with homeless encampments and aggressive panhandlers and perform wellness checks, jointly funded with Salt Lake City and Visit Salt Lake.

And as social distancing restrictions began to bite into commerce for restaurants and bars, the alliance closed portions of Main Street to automobiles on select weekends to increase sidewalk space for dining, shopping and musical performances, in hopes of bringing more people downtown.

“Everybody loved it,” Brewer said of the Open Streets program. “That never happens.”

The group’s marque Downtown Farmers Market in Pioneer Park, he noted, had to be redesigned and scaled back to accommodate health protections, then suffered further setbacks when the September windstorm downed trees in the park. Its winter market had to relocate after the March 18 earthquake damaged the Rio Grande Depot.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall praised the alliance-backed Tip Your Server program, a charitable effort that raised and gave out $660,000 to nearly 1,000 hospitality workers in the city who were thrown out of employment by the pandemic.

The Downtown Alliance’s list of yearly honorees also featured several businesses for the exemplary ways they coped, persisted and innovated during 2020, including the Fourth Street Clinic; Caputo’s Market; Plan-B Theatre Company; and developers behind the new Avia and Mya housing projects on 400 South.