On a warm May afternoon on the edge of summer, the air in downtown Anchorage smells vaguely of fried fish. A sausage cart is serving up links on the corner of one of the area’s busier streets. Stores closed as the state fought the spread of the coronavirus are beginning to reopen. But, one thing sets this spring scene apart from those of previous years – there are noticeably fewer people milling about.
This year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, summer tourism as Alaskans know it does not yet exist. The toll on the cruise industry alone is estimated to take nearly 1 million tourists from the summer economy, and that’s only a portion of the state’s usual summer visitors.
Instead of the chatter of people asking for directions on street corners, the dominant sound downtown these days comes from cars, maybe a few birds, some landscapers. Also, unlike a usual busy summer day, there’s plenty of street parking. Business owners entering a tourist season without tourists hope there’s a silver lining in all the quiet: an opening for locals to enjoy the heart of their city.
George Gee and his wife Deborah Seaton have owned Side Street Espresso on G Street for more than 28 years.
“Right now I’m looking out our window and there’s nobody on the sidewalks, and that’s not typical,” Gee said.
These last few months have not been easy. Seaton said business is way down – she estimates less than half of what is typical.
Still, they’re taking it one day at a time. And Gee said there could be an opportunity here, too.
“This period of being down is an opportunity to talk about what do we want the downtown to be,” said Gee. “Three, four, five months from now, we’re going to be something different.”
The two said the lack of tourists allows them to focus on the other side of their clientele, the one that’s the most important – people who live in Anchorage.
The downturn also comes when downtown was already in transition, with the closure of Nordstrom in September 2019, which was a major draw. Several other retail closures followed. Last week, JCPenny, which is the other anchor store of the 5th Avenue Mall, filed for bankruptcy and said some stores will close as part of a financial restructuring. It’s unclear if the location in Anchorage will be part of those closures.
Of course, businesses are hurting across the city. The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation surveyed owners at the end of last month, and 16% said they were at risk of closing for good.
Amanda Moser, with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, said while it’s quiet downtown, she’s noticing a renewed energy. The streets are noticeably busier than they were a month ago – even a few weeks ago.
“Downtown Anchorage is starting to open back up,” said Moser. “There’s more traffic downtown and more sort of pedestrians moving about than there has been over the last six weeks or so.”
Moser said she’s watching many downtown businesses adapt, despite the uncertainty.
“I’m excited to sort of see the creative ideas that come out of these challenging times,” said Moser. “Our team is always looking for ways to support our downtown community. Bring folks into what we consider Anchorage’s living room.”
Luis Portillo owns International House of Hotdogs, a food truck on the edge of downtown.
“When it comes to our business and the productivity, we’re continuing to move along in a positive direction, due to the support of our very loyal customers – locals,” he said.
Portillo has been in business for seven years, but he only moved to this location a few years ago.
“Since we moved to this corner in downtown, which was not purposefully to cater to tourists, it was just the option that we had. We definitely do see the impact that the lack of tourism has been doing by now. Last couple of summers we have been way busier because of tourism,” said Portillo.
Portillo said about half of his summertime customers are tourists, so he was worried about what this season would bring. But, he said so far it seems like local customers are going to keep his business going.
Across the street from Portillo, Tyler Howie is serving up Mexican-American cuisine at El Green-Go’s food truck. Howie said, despite the fact that visitors have historically been a big part of his business, he’s making record sales right now.
“We’re just actually seeing more business than we’ve ever seen,” said Howie. “Really really shocking and very unusual.”
Howie sees an opportunity in the lack of tourism – Alaskans who have avoided Anchorage’s downtown because of overcrowding in the past might come back.
“It definitely is weird driving through downtown in the summer and not waiting for 100 people to cross the street before you can go through the green light,” said Howie. “It’s not as busy but it’s – downtown Anchorage has always been somewhere that local don’t really want to go in the summer because they don’t want to deal with the traffic and deal with all the tourists and just all the busyness of downtown.”