Downtrodden Downtown Madison

The latest State of the Downtown report from Downtown Madison Inc. highlights the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on local businesses.
Feature State Of Downtown Report Covid Panel

Now eight months and counting into the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of trends have emerged, for better or worse. Downtown Madison Inc. (DMI) is one of the local organizations that’s been tracking data on the impacts of the pandemic on the business community, and it recently presented those findings in its 10th annual State of the Downtown report.

The data driven report provides objective and accurate information about downtown Madison. As the report notes, “10 years of data has provided us a wealth of information to better understand the current state of our downtown and to help plan for future projects, growth, challenges, and opportunities to maintain a healthy and vital central city.”

While much of the information in this year’s report reflects data prior to 2020, a special section was included at the end of the report highlighting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic so far on downtown Madison.

Among the information included in that special section, the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board conducted the Madison Region Remote Work Survey in Dane County between June 9–30 to assess the impact of COVID-19 on remote work trends and attitudes in the Greater Madison region. The survey received 1,881 responses from employees, managers, and executive leaders from a broad range of business, agency, and organization sizes and types. Some key findings from the survey relevant to downtown Madison are listed below, as well as other findings from DMI’s own research.


According to Jason Ilstrup, DMI president, the organization is just one of many that’s tracking a lot of COVID data in an effort to stay on top a situation that’s changing daily. The information presented in the latest State of the Downtown report is just the beginning. “Destination Madison is tracking cancellations. The BID is tracking closures, etc.,” Ilstrup notes. “We certainly will create a new State of the Downtown Report in 2021 but if there is a need, we may update it sooner. We, along with the Chamber, Destination Madison, the Black Chamber, the Latino Chamber, and several regional chambers recently surveyed our member on the effects of COVID on business. We should have concrete results/data soon.”

It’s important to maintain an accurate picture of how COVID-19 is impacting the local economy because many of the retailers, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues downtown are struggling mightily, Ilstrup notes.

“With little to no foot traffic, no events, and no tourists, many businesses are struggling just to keep the lights on,” he explains. “The great fear is more businesses will close if help doesn’t arrive soon. Closing businesses means employees and owners losing their jobs and benefits. Closing businesses also means we lose part of what makes Madison special, our localized streets with vibrant commercial districts. Once a business leaves, it’s always harder to find a new one.”

Ilstrup adds that it will take a widespread effort to support these local businesses throughout the Greater Madison community, which includes finding ways to safely frequent one’s favorite stores’ e-commerce sites, order more take-out or delivery, and purchasing all of our holiday gifts in Madison. “Every transaction matters right now,” Ilstrup notes.

While many of the industries that makeup the fabric of downtown Madison have struggled during the pandemic, the State of the Downtown report does highlight a surge in bicycle ridership. Ilstrup expects those gains — and hopefully all of the losses as well — to even out over time, however.

“Some businesses have succeeded in this changed landscape; however, the vast majority have incurred significant losses,” states Ilstrup. “I believe both the losses and the gains are unique to the situation and will level out. However, that being said, COVID has expediated several economic trends already present pre-pandemic. For instance, online retailing was growing significantly pre-COVID, yet growth has sky-rocketed since. Many believed by 2025, 25% of all retail transactions would be online. Now people believe it will be 33% by 2025. We’ve also seen growth in delivery and this will also remain post-pandemic.”

While online sales and food delivery may be allowing some local businesses to just keep their heads above water, those alone aren’t going to be enough to sustain them, advises Ilstrup. He says local downtown businesses need three things to survive.

“First, they need more government support from all levels. Whether it’s more PPP funding or more grants from the local and state governments, businesses cannot survive without government help. Second, we need more innovation in creating ways to ensure people remain safe while shopping and dining. Public health and business should communicate frequently to find innovative ways for businesses to keep everyone safe while ensuring there is equilibrium with our economy. Lastly, our community needs to support our local business now more than ever. If you want your favorite shop to be around post-COVID, we need to support it now.”

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