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Study: Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin ranked high on list of downtown districts recovering from pandemic shut down

March 10,2023

See full CBS Texas article by Jason Allen here.

Three years after the pandemic instantly emptied offices, storefronts and streets, Texas cities rank high on a list of recovering downtown districts, with Fort Worth leading the way among large cities in the state.

Researchers analyzing cell phone data and movement patterns, determined as much as 70% of downtown activity has returned in Fort Worth. That's eighth-best in the country among large cities, just behind Jacksonville, Florida at 71%. San Diego, California, led the way at 99%.

Among Texas cities, San Antonio (68%), Houston (61%) and Austin (58%) all fared better than cities like San Francisco (38%), Portland (37%) and Indianapolis (38%). El Paso's downtown, categorized as a mid-size city by the research team, had the best Texas ranking at 117% of pre-pandemic activity.

Data was unavailable for Dallas, according to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Toronto.

The findings are backed up by local data from Downtown Fort Worth, Inc., which found 90% of retail foot traffic is back downtown. Domestic tourism visits are now up to 110% of where they were in 2019.

At City Center, the Class A office towers that dominate the Fort Worth skyline, occupancy was back above 90% to start the year.

It's all welcome news to David Barbarena, whose printing and document company inside City Center, Falcon Document Solutions, depends on other businesses being open to actually do business.

"Could I have survived in another city?" he asked. "I have no idea. I will say I am glad I went through that in Fort Worth."

Barbarena saw his sales drop 70% in April 2020, when business and courts closed up. Within just a few months though, he was able to bring back an employee he laid off. Another came back after another year, as the city showed resiliency.

What Fort Worth had, in common with other cities seeing a successful comeback, was a variety of sectors in its downtown, and not overly reliant on office jobs and tech. Commute times are relatively short, and stringent lockdown rules didn't last long.

"It has some new housing downtown. It has some arts and entertainment downtown, and food, and accommodation downtown. So all these things are keeping it going," said Karen Chapple, professor emerita of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, and the study's lead author.

Barbarena also credited assistance funding from the city in that first year. Fort Worth distributed nearly $55 million to businesses, part of an aggressive policy decision by city leaders according to economic development director Robert Sturns, who also credited business owners.

"It's really been business owners that have made those investments to make sure they stayed here," Sturns said.

He agreed that in some aspects the lack of reliance on Class A office space helped as the city didn't have to absorb as much vacancy as other downtowns.

It also provided support for the diverse development the city is now keenly focused on, including the Texas A&M downtown campus, the redevelopment of the convention center, and the addition of more residential space and hotels.

The biggest hurdle, he explained, will be ensuring funding for the significant amounts of infrastructure required to keep projects moving forward in a timely fashion.

Location Mentioned: Texas A&M Fort Worth