Last spring — just as the coronavirus pandemic struck — couldn’t have been a worse time to open the multimillion-dollar Music Lane shopping complex on Austin’s South Congress Avenue.
South Congress has long been a retail darling, drawing locals and tourists alike to the area just south of downtown that is populated by sought-after shopping, dining, music and other venues. That’s what led Music Lane’s development team to envision a project that would add to the area’s evolution as a shopping and entertainment district.
Music Lane’s opening had been planned to coincide with the start of Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March 2020. But that event’s cancellation was one of the first major signs of how the pandemic would change this in Austin and all over the world.
“Things got really dark, really quickly. Foot traffic fell off a cliff. People just retreated,” said Roger Plourde, a principal with New York-based Turnbridge Equities, which developed the $55 million retail project along with local developers Clark Lyda and Austin Pfiester.
It’s taken roughly a year, but Austin’s retail scene — on South Congress and elsewhere — is again showing signs of life.
With more and more people getting vaccinated, retailers, shoppers and developers say they are seeing positive signs. Consumers are returning in larger numbers, be it to browse, open their wallets or just get out and about. Bachelorette parties, wedding groups, locals and tourists are returning.
“I think we’re seeing signs of recovery,” said Plourde, who lives in Austin. “We’re starting to see people travel again, and in general foot traffic has been picking up for the past three months and continues to do so.”
And while it is “still very tough to make strong projections about what will happen over next six months,” Plourde said, “I’m definitely optimistic we’ve turned a corner.”
Retail market battered
Last year at this time it was a different story.
The Austin area’s leisure and hospitality sector shed more than 60,000 jobs collectively in the initial weeks of the pandemic, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. With only about half having been added back since then, the sector, which includes retail, accounts for the vast majority of the region’s continued pandemic-related job losses.
The pandemic hit Austin’s central business district hard, forcing the closure of some businesses and, for many months, emptying its streets and shuttering storefronts, restaurants and nightclubs.
“What we’ve learned is that, for a long time, tourism and employee spending have been the main source of revenue for many of these businesses,” said Jenell Moffett, director of research and analysis for the Downtown Austin Alliance, a group of merchants and property owners.
But as visitor traffic evaporated and scores of employees worked from home, “the customer base declined to a fraction of what it was prior to the pandemic,” Moffett said.
That was true for Edson Enriquez and Anne Rutt-Enriquez, the owners of Austin retailers Limbo Jewelry and Triple Z Threadz.
“At first it felt like the bottom fell out,” Rutt-Enriquez said. “We were locked and loaded for South by Southwest and had tons of inventory and a $100,000 credit card bill to show for it. That credit card bill was terrifying. What we would have sold in one week, it took the entire rest of the year to get through.”
The husband and wife team lost two leases on South Congress Avenue and closed their store in Chicago. They temporarily laid off all 35 employees.
They were able to keep their store at Domain Northside open thanks to a landlord who was willing to work with them on rent, and a Paycheck Protection Program loan allowed them to bring some employees back, they said.
When space at 1708 S. Congress opened, they grabbed it and relaunched Limbo Jewelry and Triple Z Threadz there in March.
Customers are returning to both South Congress and Domain Northside stores, and Rutt-Enriquez said she is looking forward to holding events in outdoor space at the South Congress location. For now, the store is using the space for small classes on jewelry making and succulent arrangement.
“It’s not what it was and it may not be for a while,” she said. “We have been able to bring back 13 employees so far. And on the bright side I’m not working 80 hours a week. It has kind of carved out the noise and the fluff.”
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