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DDP: 60% of downtown Denver workforce hasn't returned to the office

Kourtney Garrett, new executive director of the Downtown Denver Partnership, said she is working with her team to attract businesses from other parts of the country.

DENVER — Lunchtime is a bit lonely at the Carmine’s at McGregor Square.

On Tuesday, the dining room was only about a quarter full. A few professionals sat at tables talking business over hoagies.

It’s nowhere near the crowd owner Brad Ritter planned for when he opened this new location last summer.

To sustain itself, Ritter said his restaurant needs a lunch crowd of about 75 diners each day. On Tuesday, there was a third of that, which he said is pretty typical.

“Here, we’re plopped right in the middle of all the business that happens downtown and that’s who we count on,” Ritter said.

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Ritter’s restaurant is part of the massive McGregor Square development, which includes at tower with nine stories of office space.

“I’m of the impression that they’re essentially leased and waiting for people to just come to work,” Ritter said.

“Hundreds of people expected to be working there, several hundred expected to be working every day. Right now, it’s just a trickle -- it’s quiet.”

A new quarterly commercial real estate report from the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield found the vacancy rate for commercial real estate in Denver’s Central Business District was about 25 percent in the first quarter of 2022.

Kourtney Garrett, the newly-named executive director of the Downtown Denver Partnership said she is working with her team to try to attract businesses from other parts of the country to fill some of that office space.

Garrett and her organization are charged with attracting more office workers to return to the office too.

“We’re actually sitting at about 40% of our workforce back at peak times,” said Kourtny Garrett, the new executive director of the Downtown Denver Partnership. “Admittedly, there is a lot of the hybrid model, and that office population varies from day to day.”

Garrett, who has worked in similar organizations in other large cities, said the pandemic stole much of Downtown Denver’s vibrancy, when more than 100,000 office workers suddenly stopped coming downtown. That lost vibrancy, she says, has led to a perception that downtown isn’t as busy as it once was. But she points to pedestrian counts which show, on nights and some weekends, the crowd downtown is nearing pre-pandemic levels again.

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“We need to continue to bring people back, to build with programming and activity to bring that perception of vibrancy back,” she said.

Garrett, who talks to CEOs at downtown businesses daily, said many businesses have already created policies requiring their employees to be in the office for at least some of the week. Other employers are expected to announce plans in the coming weeks, she said.

Ritter at Carmines has already had to make adjustments to his business to deal with the lack of office workers dining out. He made the decision at the beginning of the year to close on Mondays.

“We may have to adjust, change what our plan is -- who knows, maybe we’re a sports bar next week like the other folks around here,” he said. “Right now we’re the non-sports bar. We can’t just expect things to happen we have to be adaptive and change every day just like March of 2020 taught us.”

He believes more workers will return soon, though. He even hired a new manager to deal with what he expects to be bigger crowds.

“I’m expecting it to be happening in a matter of days,” Ritter said. “I think by the time we get through the month of May we’re going to see a different level of business.”

“We made it this far. I’m not planning to go anywhere.”

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