When Stephanie Tersigni decided to open Jolie Occasions, her women’s clothing boutique, it wasn’t hard to find the right neighborhood to put it in.
“The biggest reason I personally wanted to open a business in the Short North is because of the convention center,” Tersigni said. “It’s such a destination for travelers and out-of-town people. The foot traffic there is unbeatable.”
Unfortunately, the Greater Columbus Convention Center on North High Street at the southern end of the Short North was largely closed for much of the past year, as coronavirus guidelines restricting capacity and mandating social distancing ruled out tightly packed indoor events.
The enormous indoor venue started hosting modest events with several hundred participants this spring as COVID-19 restrictions were gradually lifted, bringing back some of the business that retailers and restaurants expect, area business owners said.
“Tourism and the hospitality industry in general took a big hit during the pandemic,” said Don Brown, executive director for the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, which operates the convention center. “We have survived, and we have very strong bookings next year and the following year, and we’re very optimistic that we will come out of this in a strong position.”
The massive conventions that draw thousands of people to Columbus are still more than a year away. A gathering for the Professional Convention Management Association is set for January 2023 and represents the next “big” event at the center, Brown said.
But the venue is hosting smaller gatherings, such as competitions in sports like gymnastics, cheerleading, dance and powerlifting. The state powerlifting championships, for example, are scheduled for Saturday, and a junior volleyball tournament is scheduled for the following weekend.
Shop and restaurant owners in the Arena District and the Short North say they see a noticeable bump in business when the convention center hosts an event. Local business owners, however, stress they are not yet back to normal.
Tourism contributes $7.6 billion to central Ohio’s economy yearly and supports 78,600 jobs, according to Experience Columbus. While those numbers aren’t broken down for individual industries or specific attractions, there is no doubt the hundreds of thousands of people who attend events at the convention contribute to the profits of nearby businesses.
The Short North looked almost abandoned during a two-month lockdown last spring, business owners and residents said.
Customers gradually returned when Gov. Mike DeWine let restaurants reopen, but shop owners said the resulting traffic couldn’t replace the sales they see during conventions.
“We had people coming to the Short North to get out of the suburbs for a bit, but it wasn’t the same.” Tersigni said.
Are visitors shopping at local businesses?
Recent events at the venue are largely limited to participants and a small number of spectators, but that still translates into customers, local entrepreneurs said.
“I don’t have a number, but I would say every time there is a convention, there are people that come down to the gallery,” said Sharon Weiss, who owns the Sharon Weiss Gallery in the Short North.
The majority of event participants come from out of town and are curious about Ohio’s capital city, she said.
“It’s usually around lunch time when there is a lunch break,” Weiss said. “I think they’re eager to see the city that they’re visiting, and the Short North is walkable from the convention center. It only makes sense that they come.”
Are visitors eating at restaurants?
The restaurants and bars within walking distance of the convention center are often the biggest beneficiaries.
“Any time there is an increased volume of people in the area, we get business from it,” said Jason Biundo, co-owner of pizza chain Late Night Slice, which has a restaurant and bar right across the street from the convention center.
“If there’s 5,000 people in a weekend, that’s 5,000 potential visitors to Barley’s and the surrounding businesses,” said Jason Fabien, general manager for Barley’s Brewing Co., which is right across the street from the convention center.
Most of the events held at the convention center now take place on the weekends, and Barley’s sees at least 50% more business during those occasions, Fabien said.
However, this is still a far cry from a normal year, when larger conventions would begin during the week and stretch into the weekend, he said.
Area restaurateurs, however, are quick to point out that an uptick in business does not alleviate the myriad problems brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Late Night Slice, for example, remains closed during lunch because it doesn’t have enough applicants for open jobs, Biundo said. That problem plagues restaurants throughout Ohio.
“We can’t get enough staff to be able to operate the hours that we need to to be able to service all the people coming in,” he said.
While businesses both big and small have raised their minimum wages as high as $15 per hour this spring to attract more workers, Biundo said that’s not an option for Late Night Slice, which would have to raise prices to compensate.
“We pay pretty well, but can’t do the $15 an hour,” he said. “It would be too much of a stretch for us to get there now.”