In the latest sign of uncertainty over downtown Seattle’s recovery, PCC Community Markets will delay the opening of its new Rainier Square tower location until next spring due to a shortage of workers and likely customers.
The location, which will occupy 20,000 square feet at the base of the 58-story building at 401 Union St., was slated to open in late summer, but will now wait till “early 2022,” a spokesperson said Wednesday.
PCC president and CEO Suzy Monford cited company concerns about finding the 100 or so workers necessary to staff a new store when the natural-foods retailer already has vacancies at its existing 15 locations.
“Our focus is on filling those roles first” at existing stores, Monford said in a statement.
But PCC also worried about a lack of foot traffic from office workers in downtown buildings, notably the Rainier Square tower itself. Many remain largely empty due to employers’ work-from-home policies.
While the new PCC store will cater in part to downtown residents, much of its anticipated revenue is expected to come from breakfast, lunch and dinner deli sales to office workers, said PCC spokesperson Kristen Woody.
“Our deli is one of our key differentiators,” Woody said. “So having that foot traffic — the lunch crowd, but [also] all through the day — is going to be very critical.”
PCC’s postponement is more evidence that downtown Seattle, a key driver of the regional economy, likely will take longer to bounce back from COVID-19 than many business and political leaders initially had hoped.
More than 450 downtown retailers, restaurants and other street-level business locations have closed permanently since January 2020, when the pandemic emptied downtown of office workers and tourists, according to a survey by the Downtown Seattle Association.
Many of the survivors have delayed reopening or opened only partially while they wait for the return of office workers, tourists, theatergoers and others.
As of late May, the number of office workers downtown averaged 35,121, down from around 175,000 before the pandemic, according to DSA data.
“There’s no doubt that the office worker has an outsized impact on the downtown economy,” said Jon Scholes, DSA CEO and president, in an email.
Adding to the uncertainty, many retailers, restaurants and other service-related companies have struggled to find enough workers to reopen or to ramp up existing operations.
But Scholes and others business officials see reasons for some optimism.
Visitor foot traffic has increased more than 45% since January, according to DSA data — and Scholes expects a sharper increase this summer as downtown’s biggest employers begin bringing more workers back.
Many Amazon workers, for example, have been told to begin returning to the office July 1.
“We expect a return to office to begin in early July for many companies, with a second wave of returning workers coming in September,” Scholes said.
Downtown is also seeing a revival in tourism. Daily visitors to Pike Place Market have risen from around 1,000 in April 2020 to 18,000 as of May 23, DSA data shows. Hotel occupancy, which fell to around 15% in January, had rebounded to 49% as of May 23.
Some downtown businesses say the trends are positive enough to take a risk on reopening even before downtown is full recovery.
Nearly 300 new street-level businesses have opened in downtown since the January 2020, the DSA says.
Ethan Stowell, who has 15 Seattle-area locations, says he tentatively plans to open two downtown locations, including one near Rainier Square, sometime this fall — but might even do so earlier “if we have enough bodies to open.”
PCC officials pointed to another pandemic-related factor in their decision to delay the downtown opening: the extra expense imposed by Seattle’s $4-per-hour pandemic hazard pay for grocery workers, which the City Council mandated earlier this year.
“Certainly the ongoing hazard [pay] has had an impact financially,” Woody said, though “it’s just one component, one factor” in the decision to delay opening.
Earlier this year, the newly hired Monford wrote to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to oppose the city’s proposal for $4-an-hour hazard pay.
“Unlike large corporate grocers who saw a large sustained uptick in sales nationwide, we have not had a sustained increase in sales and do not have a national footprint to rely on to offset these costs nor the cost of doing business in Seattle,” Monford wrote.
Some PCC employees were irked by Monford’s letter, which they felt expressed a lack of support for staff during the pandemic. In April, two of those employees ran for, and later won, seats on the PCC board of directors.