March 9, 2023

An inside look at Downtown Detroit's post-pandemic rebound

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(CBS DETROIT) - New data shows exactly how much activity is happening in downtown Detroit now compared to pre-pandemic. 

Detroit's recovery ranks 50 out of 62 cities, with jobs in finance and transportation on the rise while jobs in the hospitality industry declined.

"When you walk down the streets of downtown now, depending upon the day and the season, you'll see varying amounts of people," Dennis Archer Jr. said.

Dennis Archer Jr., a lawyer, leveraged his background in marketing and advertising to create a portfolio of companies. He's also the creator and managing partner of Central Kitchen + Bar, a local restaurant conveniently located in downtown Detroit. He says he doesn't call the current hustle and bustle of the city a "comeback."

"I never use the word "comeback." It's become a common phrase people use. I would just say Detroit's never gone anywhere," Archer said.  

The activity, or lack thereof, in downtown Detroit during the pandemic compared to now is nearly night and day. But have we fully recovered? CBS News Detroit set out to find the answer.

"I always say it's the economy, stupid. This is what really has made some cities resilient and other cities tank," Dr. Karen Chapple said.

Researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto gathered and analyzed mobile phone data in 62 cities to compare recent population patterns to pre-pandemic numbers. Cities like Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis ranked similarly, confirming a regional trend.

Dr. Karen Chapple is the director of the Urban Displacement Project – a project aiming to understand the nature of gentrification and displacement in American cities. Chapple says a city's recovery rate is deeply dependent on the economy.

"And that's really because of the overreliance on professional services, [whether] we're talking about law officer offices, law firms, management consulting, advertising, types of companies, accounting," said Chapple. "They don't need to be together to be productive. So that's been a big factor in having that kind of economy or an economy over specializing in tech has turned out to make you less resilient."

Eric Larson, CEO of Downtown Detroit Partnership, says his team crunched the numbers too.

"Our visitor population, which was at about 33 million pre-pandemic in 2019, is already back to pre-pandemic levels going into 2023," Larson said.

Larson served as CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) for nine years. According to DDP's metrics, in 2019, downtown Detroit saw a median of more than 88,000 visits daily, excluding employees and residents. Saturday was the busiest day of the week for visitors. During the pandemic, those numbers dropped drastically, but since then, there's been a slow climb toward pre-pandemic numbers.

"People tend to invest and feel comfortable in places that are stable, where they can have consistency. Detroit has had that consistency over the last few years, and we want to continue to build on that," Larson said. 

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