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A third of downtown Fort Worth shops are vacant. Here’s why some see a rebound

July 2,2021

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram by Gordon Dickson and Luke Ranker here.

North Texans who haven’t spent time in downtown Fort Worth since the pandemic began may be shocked at the number of street-facing businesses still shut down.

Nearly a third of restaurants, clothing shops and other storefronts in downtown are closed, according to a Star-Telegram spot check of the area. The large number of vacancies is an indication that the city’s popular and heralded city center is not rebounding as quickly from the COVID pandemic as other parts of the community.

That said, several city officials, business leaders and an urban planning expert all say they’re confident that many of the businesses that have disappeared will be replaced by new ventures in the coming months and years as the community fully reopens. Officials at Sundance Square, a privately-held cluster of 35 city blocks that includes many of the most popular attractions downtown, say they’re working on plans to freshen up their mix of retail offerings.

Still, as many aspects of Dallas-Fort Worth life seem to be returning to normal — including live concerts, festivals and pro sporting events that are now open to full capacity — the slower pace of revitalization in Fort Worth’s downtown area is an indication that what is arguably the city’s most famous neighborhood is going through a transition.

A 30% vacancy rate for downtown shops and restaurants is about on par with other cities, said Bill Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

“I think we’re going to see a pretty deep hole in downtown for some time,” said Fulton, whose institute studies urban issues in the south.

He added that, while he believes that bars and restaurants will fully rebound, retail in downtown areas might not ever return to the level of activity seen before the pandemic — requiring property managers to find other uses for those storefronts.

The Star-Telegram conducted a spot check of retail stores and restaurants throughout downtown by walking block to block, and counting how many stores were either open or empty. Reporters counted a total of 168 storefronts in a roughly 104-block area of the city center — and of those, 53 stores, 31.5%, were shuttered.

The area was bordered by Belknap Street to the north, Lancaster Avenue to the south, Calhoun Street to the east and Lamar Street to the west.

The check conducted June 23-24 was informal, and the results are not intended to be scientific.

The Star-Telegram counted only storefronts facing the street on the ground floor. Stores that invited the public to come into their premises were counted, including dozens of restaurants and pubs, music venues, clothing and specialty shops, fitness centers and hair and nail salons.

Downtown businesses above the ground floor, or that didn’t typically invite the public inside — including residential buildings, building management and maintenance offices and government buildings — were not counted.

Fulton said cities with diversified downtowns that don’t rely purely on the spending money of 9-to-5 office workers will bounce back quicker than downtowns that are primarily used for office space.

“To get people to come back you have to rev up the theaters, concert venues, conventions,” he said, adding later: “I will say there is tremendous hunger for people to see each other in person.”

That diversity is exactly why business and city leaders say they aren’t worried about downtown Fort Worth’s ability to bounce back.

Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group for businesses and residents, said that when the pandemic forced office workers to flee downtown, and convention and tourism business dried up, the large number of people now living downtown helped keep many of the businesses going.

“I think it’s fair to say residential, hospitality, office and retail/restaurant act as shock absorbers for each other,” Taft said. “We used to be a one-trick pony with just offices downtown and, when the oil and gas industry went down, downtown would be dead. Stick a fork in it. It would take a generation to recover. Now, we have over 10,000 people living downtown who spent $53 million in restaurant and retail sales.”

Taft said he’s not surprised by the findings of the Star-Telegram spot check. His organization periodically conducts a survey of ground floor businesses downtown, and the most recent check showed 27.2% of the street-facing square footage downtown was vacant.

Taft said his organization’s findings may differ slightly from the Star-Telegram’s because his organization covers a wider area of downtown, and because his 27.2% figure is based on square footage, whereas the Star-Telegram’s 31.5% figure is based purely on the number of businesses in the area.

Before the pandemic the storefronts downtown were typically 97% full, Taft said.

Office workers are starting to return to downtown in droves. In May, downtown offices were only 35% full, but this month the ratio has improved to 50%, he said.

“What we’re missing is the about 50% of the office users and our traditional weekday business traveler and conventioneers,” Taft said.

Sundance Square, the Ed and Sasha Bass-owned property management group, is the largest force in downtown, controlling the 35-square-block shopping and entertainment district in the center. Officials for the management group weren’t prepared to comment for this story, but a spokesperson said several announcements were planned for mid-July.

Downtown hotel occupancy, which was as low as 29.7% in January, has since risen to 50%, said Mitch Whitten, executive vice president for marketing and strategy for Visit Fort Worth.

Whitten also said several prominent sporting events provided tourism revenue for the city, even before the community was fully reopened and even though some of the events were miles from downtown.

More recently, in June after the city began to reopen, the U.S. Gymnastics Championship featuring Simone Biles at Dickies Arena, the NASCAR All-Star race at Texas Motor Speedway and the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoor Bass Master Classic, which was hosted by Fort Worth in March (although the fishing was at Lake Ray Roberts near Denton).

“During the Bassmaster fishing tournament, total city (hotel) occupancy was 70.3%, and we know a lot of people stayed downtown,” he said. In all, sporting events provided $90 million in revenue, he said.

“I think they’ve been a lifeline for downtown Fort Worth,” Whitten said.

The city’s famous Bass Hall music venue and the Fort Worth Convention Center are both ramping up their events, including many that have been on hold for more than a year because of COVID.

Many downtown retailers cater to tourists and convention goers, like Parts Unknown, a clothing story at 410 Houston St. Business there dropped during the pandemic but now store manager Janet Lara said she’s excited for the future. Comparing month to month, Lara said business is already back to where it was in 2019 and trending up.

While customers are returning, they’re a different type, she said. Downtown conventions used to provide most of the clientele, but now customers are coming from other nearby cities or Oklahoma, she said. Folks looking for a quick weekend trip appear to driving most of the new business. She recently pitched downtown to another retailer, hoping that another shop would encourage people to stay downtown.

“You know the streets do look a little sad Monday through Thursday, but the weekends have big crowds,” she said. “We’re only increasing, we can only go up from here.”

Newly elected Mayor Mattie Parker said she is “bullish on downtown” and confident in the leadership of Sundance Square and Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

City leaders shouldn’t be afraid of any changes that may come to downtown as the area reinvents itself post-COVID, she said.

“It’s an opportunity to really change the way downtown operates, to fit the changing consumer mindset,” Parker said in an interview. “Our downtown is allowed to evolve. That’s not just Sundance Square. It’s the entire business district.”

Elizabeth Beck, the newly elected city council member whose district includes downtown, said concern about economic vitality in downtown during the pandemic may have been greater than in other parts of the city because the loss of foot traffic and stores closures are more obviously in the densely concentrated core.

Like other council members, she campaigned in part on boosting local small businesses. The vacancies downtown create an opportunity to that, she said, arguing that open retail and restaurant locations should be filled with home-grown concepts instead of national chains.

“Obviously that’s easier said then done, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” Beck said, adding that it would take “creative thinking” from downtown promoters, property owners and the city. “That’s something that would be a long term benefit to Fort Worth and downtown.”

Locations Mentioned: Bass Performance Hall, Parts Unknown, Sundance Square Plaza