When will tourists return to downtown San Jose?
A masked couple walks by the San Jose Convention Center in March 2021. File photo.

    Those seeking stillness and quiet can find refuge in downtown San Jose on Tuesday mornings. The city’s sidewalks—where visitors, students and workers once competed for space—now offer an abundance of empty concrete where desperate birds scavenge for rare crumbs.

    “There was a certain traffic on First Street,” said Bertrand “Patrón” Paule, a visual artist and art director for San Jose Storyboard. “At nighttime, it was such a fun place to be.”

    The numbers attest to the abrupt change between then and now in Silicon Valley’s once-booming tourism center. In 2019, the San Jose Convention Center and other downtown event venues drew $64 million in revenue, according to Team San Jose CEO John LaFortune. Last year—as the global coronavirus pandemic led to bans on large events—revenues shrunk to $11.2 million. This year, revenues are projected to be $3.7 million.

    “All of our four venues were closed down,” LaFortune said. “Right away, we had to lay off about 1,400 staff, a lot of them with our unions.”

    A lone pedestrian crosses the once-bustling intersection at Market and San Carlos Streets on Tuesday, March 16. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    Roughly a year after Santa Clara County issued its first shelter-in-place order in March 2020, prohibiting events with 1,000 or more attendees, operators of the city’s major tourism attractions have adjusted to the virtual climate. Cinequest, San Jose’s decades-old film festival, regularly draws more than 100,000 attendees. The festival was halted days into run last year, postponing screenings of some films.

    This year, the festival is entirely online. Some events, such as live Q&As with filmmakers, are scheduled for specific times. However, most of the movies will be available for streaming at any time during the festival’s 10-day stretch from March 20 to March 30.

    Anh Le, a film student at San Jose State University, will miss the thrill of in-person screenings. Le submitted a screenplay to Cinequest this year. It was selected as one of 50 semifinalists for a grand prize to be announced at the end of the festival. Le said she’s disappointed that she and her film partners won’t have a chance to celebrate the accomplishment in person.

    “It’s kind of saddening,” Le said. “Of all the times… (the time) that we get recognized at Cinequest, we couldn’t even go watch the film festival.”

    Cinequest is one of many annual events that drew visitors to downtown. From FurCon and FanimeCon to the Silicon Valley Auto Show, the pandemic has helped students, residents and visitors feel a greater appreciation for what once was.

    The main entrance of the California Theatre, once filled with concertgoers and Cinequest attendees, is now graced only by a small pile of debris. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

    LaFortune said the pandemic pushed Team San Jose to pivot to start new community-focused programs, some of which he hopes will remain a part of its operations. The tourism bureau opened a homeless shelter under the big blue tent at South Hall on Market Street, which still offers 285 beds to unhoused residents. Team San Jose distributed hundreds of thousands of meals and boxed lunches throughout the county, employing some of its laid-off workforce in the process.

    “It’s a part of us now that we want to continue in some way,” LaFortune said. “I want to continue the community feeling moving forward.”

    California hasn’t yet announced when large events can return. That keeps Team San Jose from replenishing its funds, largely based on hotel taxes and revenues from the venues it manages. LaFortune said California is the only state in the country that has yet to publish a reopening plan for convention centers.

    “That will definitely put us at a disadvantage when you have other states that are open or have a road or a path to recovery,” LaFortune said. “We’re not able to tell our clients what we have.”

    The Convention Center Coalition, organized by statewide tourism lobbying firm CalTravel, sent open letters to Governor Gavin Newsom on June 17, 2020, and March 3, 2021. Image courtesy of CalTravel.

    The city’s largest events generate millions of dollars for both the city and small businesses. In 2019, the estimated amount of money spent by visitors at businesses around town was $122.6 million. Last year, that figure was only $16.4 million.

    “The quicker we’re up and running, and making revenue for the city… all the communities are going to prosper from that,” LaFortune said. “People want to get out after being locked up for a year-plus… I really think San Jose will come back better than ever.”

    “Patrón” Paule agrees that once the convention center and other events venues open, the downtown scene will re-emerge.

    “It’s going to resurface; it’s just the nature of things,” Paule said. “When it starts cracking again, it’s going to explode.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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