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Empty Office Buildings Leave Spots Like The Corner Sandwich Shop Without Customers


Across the country, many white-collar workers still haven't returned to their offices and don't plan to until fall at the earliest. That means fewer customers for businesses that depend on those workers to buy their goods and services. Corrinne Hess of Wisconsin Public Radio has more.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: A metal box on wheels that smells of smoke and advertises cold drinks and hot dogs has been one of the most popular lunch destinations in the heart of downtown Milwaukee for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...A little spicy, a little sweet.

HESS: It's called Real Dogs, and it has claimed the coveted spot just outside of the Chase office tower for 23 years. Before the pandemic, the line to get a hot dog, sausage or chorizo could sometimes stretch around the block. These days, with many white-collar workers still staying away from the office, owner Jeremy McCown says business is way down.

JEREMY MCCOWN: It's hurt us big time. The fact that we're hearing that they're coming back is, like, a godsend.

HESS: A recent survey of downtown Milwaukee office workers found that about half plan to return to work by September, and about 70% plan to be back in the office by the end of the year. And that's been the case throughout much of the country. Gary Burtless is an economist who researches income distribution at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He says all across the country, cities that have large business districts also have ancillary businesses like dry cleaners, flower shops and barbershops that are suffering.

GARY BURTLESS: Even though business activity is inching up in those central business district neighborhoods, it isn't nearly as close to normal as those neighborhoods where the local businesses rely on local residents.

HESS: In many cities, there's an entire ecosystem built up to support people who work in offices, and many of those businesses suffered a huge financial hit after offices closed for the pandemic. But most businesses are still paying the same high rents to be located in downtown neighborhoods. Many of Katherine Fuchs' clients used to step in for a haircut at Milwaukee Street Barbershop on their way to work or over the lunch hour.

KATHERINE FUCHS: It's shifting. I'm seeing some old faces again. I'm seeing some new faces who are just simply back at work and trying us out now because some are - you know, their old place has since closed. Unfortunately, there were definitely barbershops that have not made it back open again.

HESS: Jill Ruffing thought locating a sandwich shop on the first floor of a downtown Milwaukee office building was better than being in the suburbs. While her competitors in the suburbs are thriving, her customers are still not back at work.

JILL RUFFING: Sometimes I get frustrated because I'm like, come on, people, come back (laughter).

HESS: Economist Gary Burtless was recently in New York City, where he saw firsthand that neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Queens are back to normal. But in Midtown Manhattan, it's a different situation. There is much less foot traffic.

BURTLESS: And it's bad for a lot of the local businesses which are there to serve the office workers.

HESS: Back in downtown Milwaukee, the steam press machines that ran constantly at Avenue Fabricare dry cleaners are now mostly idle. Manager Waseem Dilshad says the attorneys and guests from nearby hotels no longer need his services as frequently.

WASEEM DILSHAD: Now, we dry clean twice a week instead of every day like we used to do.

HESS: Back at Real Dogs, about a dozen people are in line for a hot dog. Jeremy McCown isn't sure if business will ever be back to normal. But for him and the thousands of business owners who make their livelihoods from white-collar workers, the long-term economic effects of the pandemic are still being felt.

For NPR News, I'm Corrinne Hess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRIUSMO'S "NIGHTS OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrinne Hess