Downtown St. Paul finds a way forward as pandemic drags on
In a way, Mickey's Diner mirrors the rest of downtown St. Paul: recovering, but slowly and in some cases pivoting in a new direction.
COVID-19 accomplished what 80 years of wars, recessions and blizzards couldn't. It closed Mickey's Diner.
For the past two years, with the exception of a handful of carryout orders, St. Paul's iconic all-day dining car has been dark, its future uncertain. Mickey's President Melissa Mattson said this week she hopes Mickey's can resume slinging its O'Brien potatoes by the end of summer. At worst, she said, by the end of 2022.
It's been a rough road, she acknowledged, full of false starts and disappointed customers.
"We got the sign lit," she said of recent work, which includes replacing the restaurant's heating and cooling system. "It's kind of our beacon of hope."
In a way, Mickey's mirrors the rest of downtown St. Paul: recovering, but slowly and in some cases pivoting in a new direction. From commercial real estate to restaurants and nightlife, downtown is showing signs of returning — with some changes.
Workers are trickling back to offices that emptied, although some may never return to the workplace full-time. Restaurants that went dark have been reopened or replaced, but many with reduced hours and lowered expectations.
"I will tell you that pre-COVID, I was really, really excited about the momentum that we were experiencing downtown and the opportunities in front of our downtown," St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said in an interview Friday. "Obviously, the pandemic sort of took the ground out from under us on a number of fronts. ... But I am hopeful and optimistic about the future of downtown."
While bars and restaurants such as the Liffey, Black Sheep Pizza and Tin Whiskers tap room have closed, a number of drinking and dining spots have returned or attracted new iterations. Carol March, who owns the Madison restaurant group that opened Justin Sutherland's new Noyes & Cutler steakhouse near Mears Park, said she's optimistic for the return of downtown St. Paul. They've reopened Eagle Street and Gray Duck Tavern and have plans to reopen the Green Lantern in space below Noyes & Cutler.
"We watch what has been happening, and we're seeing a lot more activity," March said. "We wouldn't have made that decision if we didn't feel strongly about downtown St. Paul."
Anna Peterson is general manager of Momento, a new restaurant in the space long occupied by Pazzaluna. Like its Italian predecessor, Momento is owned by the Morrissey family, she said. They remain bullish on downtown and anticipate the impact of hockey crowds come October, she said.
"Are we optimistic? Absolutely," she said. "I see us only going up from here." That said, even downtown's champions see some changes continuing to transform its future. While downtown St. Paul has long relied on its workers to fuel its commercial and entertainment traffic, COVID took a bite out of that when employers sent those workers home. The occupancy rate for competitive office space in St. Paul was 76.9% in 2021, a decrease from 81.4% in 2020, according to a report from the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA).
Events — concerts, music festivals, hockey and baseball games — have since returned, restoring some of downtown's vibrancy, said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance.
But downtown's workers are just trickling back, he said, with some offices returning to five-day workweeks while others are following a hybrid home-office model.
Nicolle Goodman, St. Paul's director of Planning and Economic Development, said employers with fewer workers coming downtown are rethinking how to use their office space. In addition, a number of developers have approached the city about converting buildings with unused office space into housing.
"And that'll continue to evolve as companies figure out how much space they are going to need," Goodman said. "Downtown is a wonderful place to live and work and play — so to the degree that any underutilized office space needs to convert to housing, we'll be partnering with everyone that we can on that." Nearly 11,000 people now call downtown home, Spencer said. That's a 110% increase from 2010. As that number grows, he said, so too will downtown's vitality.
"But this isn't going to be an overnight change," Spencer said. "We're playing the long game."
Downtown was quiet Thursday evening during Cathy Naughton's walk by Pedro Park, but the longtime resident said that's not unusual. When she moved to the area 17 years ago, seeking a cheaper rent than what she was paying in Minneapolis, downtown was in many ways sleepier because the light rail wasn't built.
Naughton said she's noticed the pandemic's impacts most in the skyways, where she takes her walks in winter.
"We've lost a few restaurants," she said, gesturing to the shuttered Black Sheep Pizza across the street. "But we've gained some, too." Erik and Joy Berthelsen have found plenty to do since moving to Lowertown in May. They're regular attendees at Lowertown Sounds, a free weekly concert series in Mears Park, and have invited friends to frequent Saints games and the Farmers Market.
"We like the vibe," Joy said. "There's lots to do within walking distance, but it's still quiet."
COVID's impact on cutting the number of workers and visitors downtown also had an effect on crime, officials acknowledge. Downtown's comeback requires that its workers, visitors and residents feel safe, said Jeremy Ellison, St. Paul's interim chief of police.
While crime numbers are not up dramatically when looking at trends over several years, Ellison said, "the pandemic was a huge challenge for our entire community, and downtown was not alone. The vacuum of reduced visitors, foot traffic, it really had a huge impact on that feeling of safety downtown."
Over the past couple of years, the city has been able to put some extra officers downtown, he said. That has allowed police to "really focus on protecting people by doing enforcement of crimes that put safety in jeopardy." He added: "We saw the statistics go down when that was happening, and we also got a lot of positive feedback from the community."
From putting city workers into previously vacant skyway space to partnering with the Downtown Alliance to launch pop-up businesses in once-empty shops, St. Paul officials say they continue exploring ways to increase activity downtown. Even fixing downtown streets is having a positive effect, Carter said.
"One of the things that I know everyone who's been downtown the last couple years has noticed is all the dust we're kicking up in rebuilding those streets downtown to make sure that our infrastructure matches our big vision for downtown," he said, referencing ambitious, yet-to-be-funded proposals, such as a river balcony and Ramsey County's RiversEdge development, which would connect downtown with the Mississippi River.
"It does feel like we're in a space now where we have more momentum to build on," Carter added.
Like Carter, Mattson is optimistic. Optimistic that Mickey's and its loyal customers will overcome COVID and contractor delays to soon reunite over burgers and omelets. The diner's social media page is filled with messages of encouragement and questions about when they will reopen. A GoFundMe page raised more than $72,000. The goal was $50,000. Renovations should be done soon, she said.
"We're getting so much love," she said.