Foot traffic in downtown Des Moines during the workweek is slowly increasing but still lags behind traffic that was occurring before the pandemic, information from the Greater Des Moines Partnership shows.

In September, downtown foot traffic during the workday was 68% of what it was in September 2019, six months before the outbreak of COVID sent office workers to their homes to work remotely, according to data presented by Carrie Kruse at a breakout session during the recent Iowa Commercial Real Estate Association’s annual Expo. (To view the chart, click here.)

In addition, all foot traffic, including weekends and in the evenings, was 75% of what it was in September 2019, said Kruse, who had been vice president of downtown development for the Partnership. (She resigned recently to return to the city of Des Moines’ economic development department, where she had worked prior to joining the Partnership.)

“I think the optimistic thing to recognize … is that we’re definitely outpacing the nation and the national averages as far as getting people to come back downtown during the workday,” Kruse said during the presentation.

Still, she added, “we’re not at full recovery, and hybrid work is here to stay.”

Those comments become more meaningful when considering the amount of vacant office that exists in the Central Business District. According to JLL’s third-quarter office market report, 13.7%, or 1.4 million square feet, of the area’s more than 10.3 million square feet of office space is vacant.

In the second quarter, the Central Business District’s office vacancy rate was 13.5%

Developer Jake Christensen, who also was a speaker during the association’s breakout session on downtown, repeatedly said that the Central Business District needs to be “compelling.”

In recent decades, downtown has evolved to become a compelling place in which to visit, work and live, Christensen said. “As I interact with tenants still looking to do office developments downtown, they want downtown to be compelling. … Downtown needs to respond to that.”

Kruse said a growing number of downtown employers are starting to require their employees to be in the office one or more days a week. As more employers add the requirement, foot traffic will likely increase further, she said.

Kruse said downtown events like the farmers market and the recent IMT Des Moines Marathon are helping draw more people to the Central Business District.

“Without those events, without the night and weekend activities, we’d still be much further behind, just relying on the workforce,” she said.

To read JLL’s third-quarter office market report, click here.