Restaurant manager Billy Anderson directed patrons to a sign-up sheet near the front doors of Anchorage Cider House | Fat Ptarmigan on a recent afternoon.
“Three of us? Excellent,” he said happily, behind a face mask. “Can I ask just one person to log in for contact tracing?”
He asked them where they would like to sit. Only two other tables had customers.
If you had asked Anderson a few years ago if it was a good day for business, he would have said: No way. But more than a year after the start of a pandemic, his answer is: Yes, it’s a good day.
“It is not like it used to be. But people are coming, and over time the seats fill up, ”he said. “We are slowly moving in the right direction.”
Cautious optimism is a theme of the Anderson block of Fifth Avenue, between D and E streets. There are restaurants, a furniture store, offices and empty storefronts. Together, they provide insight into how businesses have struggled, especially in the city’s downtown core, as a multi-year recession turned into a pandemic, and thousands of jobs in Anchorage have disappeared.
As the city settles in the spring, executives of the companies that survived said they were starting to see encouraging signs, with warmer weather, capacity restrictions lifted and more vaccinated people returning. to some of the rhythms of pre-pandemic life. But things are still far from normal, and as tourism is unlikely to rebound this summer, they are taking it day by day.
“It’s almost like we’ve been swimming for so long and trying to get our heads above water,” Anderson said. “We’re almost at the point where we can start breathing again.”
Just down the block last Friday at Furniture Classics, owner Colleen Hickey was sitting behind a counter, with a stack of catalogs in front of her.
“It was the toughest year, I would say, ever,” said Hickey, who opened the furniture store on Fifth Avenue in 1989.
“It was the time of Exxon Valdez,” she says. “And it was pretty dark here. We’ve been through good times and bad, but this should definitely be rated as the hardest part.
The store was quiet this afternoon, with the exception of a Billy Joel song played over the speakers. There were no customers in the store. Hickey said it’s impossible to predict what a business might look like on any given day. She has tried moving on to more interior design work over the past year, with Alaska’s housing market, a bright spot in the pandemic.
“We’ve had a pretty busy morning,” she says. “We had several people from the start, which surprised me. But now it’s very quiet. So you just don’t know.
Hickey said she was worried her store and others would withstand another blow, after the recession and pandemic took their toll.
“If we were to have a real slowdown again, due to COVID, closures or that sort of thing, I would say all bets are off,” she said. “I mean, you can tell how many businesses just disappeared.”
The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping cities across the country, and what will emerge in downtown Anchorage is still not formed.
In the city, the pandemic has “damaged all industries” and led to the biggest job decline on record, according to a report released in January by state economists.
Anchorage has lost nearly 14,000 jobs in less than a year. Bars, restaurants and hotels were hit the hardest, as Alaskans and tourists stayed at home and the city put rules in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Next to the furniture store on Fifth Avenue, Ginger is one of many companies that are cutting jobs to stay afloat. The restaurant now has about two dozen employees, said Matt Gill, managing partner. But he would normally have about double that.
“This past year, honestly, I haven’t even considered it a business. I saw it as us just trying to keep our heads above water and keep people working, ”he said. “I’m just happy to keep the doors open.”
On the east side of the Fifth Avenue block, next to a corner parking lot, is a largely empty space that used to be Escape Salon and Spa. It appears to have closed last spring as part of the government’s coronavirus mandates, and has not reopened since.
The owner did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The closure of the show left Club Paris, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, ended with storefronts vacant during the fall and winter.
There used to be a gift shop on the other side, but it closed a few years ago.
Club Paris co-owner Scott Selman remembers looking at the empty spaces across the street earlier this year. Some windows in the living room were covered with paper. People sought refuge under the awnings.
“I swear to God, it was apocalyptic. It was one of the most depressing sites I have ever seen, ”he said.
Club Paris has been in the Selman family for decades.
Selman’s father bought the restaurant as a silent partner in 1976, and later became the sole owner.
Selman and his brother are now co-owners of the iconic restaurant, which he said he had to partly reinvent over the past year.
While the food and styrofoam boxes seemed “incongruous,” he laughed, they changed the restaurant’s menu so they could sell more take-out. They also relied on grants, loans and a lot of community support.
“I’m going to tear it up just thinking about it,” Selman said. “As soon as we found out how bad it was, we got emails, people sent us checks to pass us through, people made more take out orders.”
Selman described the current business situation as “sustainable, but not flourishing.”
But in a good sign for the block, the space east of the restaurant was recently rented out, local real estate agent Charles Scherbaum said. He thinks it will be a fair again.
Scherbaum is still trying to rent the old gift shop. But, he said, the pandemic has made leasing commercial space more difficult, with some companies reluctant to accept a new lease and new risks.
The office building on the block has a sign in its window: it’s also renting space. The property manager declined to comment for this story.
Scherbaum said he viewed this time as “just another dip in the road” for the city center.
“Having lived in Anchorage for over 50 years, I feel the city will come back,” he said.
It is not known how long it will take downtown to recover.
Many people are hungry to resume normal routines, including going out to eat and shop, said Nolan Klouda, director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. But the double blow of a recession and a pandemic will likely slow down the job recovery.
“It could easily take, you know, four or five years just to get back to 2019 employment levels, which were already lower than 2015 employment levels due to our previous recession,” he said. “So this shows you that we have a lot of ground to catch up.”
Many big questions also remain, he said. What will tourism be like this summer without the big cruise ships? And how many Alaskans will return to their offices?
Back in Fat Ptarmigan, the restaurant tables were spaced even further apart to comply with city distancing rules. A waiter brought pepperoni and mushroom pizza to a client who works downtown and was on a lunch break.
“My big issue is the support we continue to provide downtown,” said customer Eddie Parker. “So I did what I could. And that is why I am here today.
Parker is among the locals who helped keep the restaurant running during the toughest times, said Anderson, the manager.
And, after a year of depending primarily on grants, loans, and savings to help cover costs, the restaurant is nearing breakeven point.
“We see hope,” he said.