March 25, 2023 7:30 am

Even on a vibrant day in the middle of a workweek, downtown Chicago cannot shake the gloom.

Prime corners in lots of locations are vacant, and the surviving restaurants, if they’re intelligent, have window or sidewalk indicators declaring themselves open. Except for the commuting or lunch rushes, any day can look like a drowsy Sunday from ahead of the pandemic hit, now 3 years ago.

The enterprises are in a “long COVID” fight of their personal. Some have changed their hours and competitive approaches. But handful of who run them are specific about the rhythms of urban life they depended on. The pandemic, even though receding as a wellness threat, has had a lasting impact on exactly where persons want to operate and, as a result, devote.

For Atlas Stationers, a household-run business enterprise in the Loop that dates from 1939, new pondering had to take place in quick order. When the shutdown hit in March of 2020 — 3 years ago this week — a business enterprise that served completely staffed offices about them discovered revenue down to zero overnight. So President Don Schmidt, with cajoling from sons Brian and Brendan, implemented a program.

The store’s nonetheless at 227 W. Lake St. but guests who haven’t been there awhile will do a double-take. They may try to remember its old appear — stacked to the ceiling with notebooks and accordion files like an workplace provide warehouse. It now sparkles like a jewelry retailer, but not to show off rings and watches. Fancy fountain pens and stationery are on show.

Don Schmidt (right), president of Atlas Stationers, talks with David Oscarson, a designer of luxury fountain pens.

Don Schmidt (appropriate), president of Atlas Stationers, talks with David Oscarson, a designer of luxury fountain pens.

They type the core of Atlas’ new business enterprise, 75% of which consists of on line orders sent all through the U.S. The store’s active social media presence encouraged interest in old-fashioned pen-and-paper writing that emerged as persons with time at household took up hobbies, the Schmidts stated.

Don Schmidt stated it took a year for Atlas to attain its pre-pandemic income. Now, it is performing 3 instances that level of business enterprise and has added 5 employees members in current weeks, bringing the total workforce to 16. “I assume that total is a peak for us,” Schmidt stated.

The retailer itself has been redesigned to place fewer products on reduced shelves with much more eye-catching displays, catering to vacationers and stroll-ins who found its niche on line.

“Saturdays have turn into our busiest day,” and the household appears forward to warmer climate bringing persons to the Riverwalk close to the retailer, Schmidt stated.

He stated the on line presence tends to make even 1st-time guests really feel like they know the location. A sense of welcome and some in-retailer events can enable retailers survive, Schmidt believes. At Atlas, in the middle of precious floor space is a table exactly where persons can test pens and some of the stores’ 600-plus ink colors, and Schmidt stated persons enjoy it.

Customers browse products at Atlas Stationers, Inc. in the Loop, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Shoppers browse solutions at Atlas Stationers, Inc. in the Loop, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

He’s been in a position to track downtown’s comeback and how it differs from other regions. “You appear at Fulton Industry. That location is rocking. It is packed,” mainly by younger persons operating from household, Schmidt stated. “But the Loop itself, it is improved. It was empty, but it is steady now.”

Like other merchants, Schmidt believes the old habit of 5 days in the workplace is gone. “I assume the Monday, Friday [office visits] may be questionable for the foreseeable future,” he stated.

Similarly, Mike Flanagan, chief development officer at Chicago-primarily based Arch Amenities Group, has discovered possibilities out of the pandemic but knows dangers abound. His firm is a private-equity-backed firm that has acquired weaker competitors in the business enterprise of handling exercise rooms, lounges, coffee bars and other solutions for workplace landlords and hotels. It is even set up bowling alleys and virtual golf simulators.

It has much more than 400 web pages about the nation, which includes 52 in Chicago and an additional ten in the suburbs. Flanagan stated Chicago’s downtown recovery is ahead of these in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. But even though workplace landlords assume about how to make buildings much more exciting to draw customers back, some are slow to commit to costly operate.

“What utilized to be a 4-to-eight-month selection approach has turn into two years,” he stated. As a outcome, Arch has furloughed a handful of workers.

Pedestrians walk by a vacant storefront at 10 S. La Salle St. in December. City officials are looking at ways to revitalize the Loop.

Pedestrians stroll by a vacant storefront at ten S. La Salle St. in December. City officials are searching at techniques to revitalize the Loop.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

Flanagan stated enhancing amenities can price a creating $25 million to $30 million. Frequently, workplace creating owners face an costly contact of irrespective of whether to convert ground-floor space that ordinarily commands higher rents into a tenant amenity, he stated.

Weekly information from Kastle Systems, which tracks the comings and goings in buildings exactly where it has safety gear, has shown that beginning in late January about 50% of downtown Chicago workplace workers had been in the space day-to-day. The proportion has improved just slightly in current months, marking a rebound that Michael Edwards, head of the Chicago Loop Alliance, has referred to as “agonizingly slow.”

A essential element of downtown life, the hotels, have fared improved and anticipate much more bookings as convention business enterprise picks up by means of the year. With tourism this summer season also anticipated to enhance, hotels are gradually raising typical prices, according to information from study firm STR as offered by the Illinois Hotel &amp Lodging Association.

But points may not get back to pre-pandemic normalcy for at least two much more years, stated Michael Jacobson, the association’s president and CEO.

Broader measures of the economy show its resilience and the stabilizing impact of federal government help. They also show that a job, even if it is operate from household, is nonetheless a job. State government’s annual count of private sector employment discovered that by means of March 2022, there had been tiny general adjust in job totals in Chicago’s central region considering the fact that 2019, the final complete year ahead of the pandemic.

All round, Chicago remains slightly beneath its pre-pandemic record of 1.two million private sector jobs in 2019, the information show.

Other study by the labor-backed Illinois Financial Policy Institute covering job development or decline by means of 2021 showed that most post-pandemic gains had been in higher-paying occupations that could be carried out remotely in such regions as management and monetary solutions. Occupations that fell the most integrated administrative assistance roles as effectively as in restaurants and related meals solutions, all jobs tied to getting at a web page.

Meantime, even though some business enterprise leaders push for at least a element-time return to workplace operate, lots of staffers resist, nonetheless picking out a couch more than a workstation. It may not matter if the workplace has totally free pizza. Preference for remote operate could even advantage suburban workplace buildings, exactly where brokers report an improve in leasing activity by providers tempting workers with a shorter commute.

Atlas Stationers, Inc., located at 227 W. Lake St. in the Loop, is seen in this photo, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Atlas Stationers, Inc., positioned at 227 W. Lake St. in the Loop, is observed in this photo, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

No matter if much more downtown workers return could rely on worries about crime, stated Atlas Stationers’ Schmidt. He stated that for the duration of the unrest soon after the police murder of George Floyd, his store’s windows had been smashed but nothing at all was taken. A survey by WBEZ showed riders cited crime, unreliable service and filth as factors for not utilizing the CTA much more usually.

To revive downtown, “it comes down to crime and taxes,” stated Arch Amenities’ Flanagan.

Schmidt and Flanagan each favor city-led efforts to bring much more residences downtown, such as with a plan to offer you developers incentives to enhance the La Salle Street corridor. It could take unfashionable workplace layouts of the marketplace but demands costly renovations. But there’s nothing at all rah-rah in their outlook, just realism.

“I do not assume the city has an option,” Schmidt stated.