The very top of the 538-foot PNC Plaza skyscraper isn’t the only thing that’s looking up in Raleigh.

A second-quarter market report released by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance this week contains positive data on everything from planned developments to the return of beloved festivals like Artsplosure.

COVID-19 had detrimental effects on countless businesses and economies, and Raleigh was no exception. In 2020, foot traffic and local businesses hit all-time lows, but last quarter’s numbers reflect how much work has been done—and is yet to be done—to get downtown back on its feet. With 17 new development projects underway, residential occupancy at 95 percent, and a nearly 30 percent increase in food and beverage sales over the same quarter a year ago, I think it’s safe to say Raleigh’s in its comeback era.

While not all of downtown Raleigh has recovered from the pandemic and many small business owners are still struggling to bounce back from two years of lost revenue, the report showed 10 new storefront openings and expansions, says Will Gaskins, the alliance’s vice president of economic development and planning.

“We continue to see a lot of entrepreneurial activity going on, with new or expanding businesses downtown, and that’s just an exciting continual pace of new local businesses that are opening in downtown,” Gaskins says.

The report highlights how hotel occupancy and tourism shot up from April through June as well as the success of downtown festivals and major events like Artsplosure, Raleigh Pride, Cuegrass, and Brewgaloo. Raleigh is also piloting a social district around Fayetteville Street, which will allow people to drink alcoholic beverages as they stroll around downtown. 

Now we know about the place, but what about the people? The report showed a 12,000+ resident population, 48,000 downtown employees, and a median age of 33. The population has doubled since 2010, and it’s projected to start approaching 20,000 residents by 2026, according to the report.

With this increasing population comes new opportunities and jobs. One of the strongest findings in the report was more than 345,000 square feet of net occupied downtown office space from the beginning of 2022 to the end of June, meaning that offices are bouncing back despite the hit they took during the pandemic. 

The Wall Street Journal recently ranked Raleigh as the third best job market in the U.S., and Gaskins says there is much evidence for continued growth going forward.

“[We’re] very excited around the prospects of downtown Raleigh overall,” Gaskins says. “The fact that we have seen this continued level of interest from the development side of things, from new people moving into the market to leasing apartments and keeping occupancy at a high level, means that there’s an extremely robust demand.”

Raleigh residents’ consistent support of local, independently-owned businesses is what keeps much of downtown afloat, and the pandemic gave many downtown residents the opportunity to refocus that support toward minority- and women-owned businesses, Gaskins says.

“To see that in a downtown of our size, it’s just really encouraging that we prioritize that as a community,” Gaskins says. “Since the start of the pandemic especially, we’ve really seen an explosion of entrepreneurship and recruitment, relocation, and expansion of minority- and women-owned businesses.”

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