San Francisco hoping new downtown bars indicate a boom is coming

A small business boom in downtown San Francisco has many hoping a business boom is on the horizon. 

Downtown San Francisco's post-COVID economic struggles have been well documented, but amid concerns of vacancies, there is a glimmer of hope with a small-business boom of sorts and large betting that downtown will battle back. 

With San Francisco's uncertain future, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development says the city now stands about 45% office occupancy, the highest since the pandemic, but still far below where it would like to be. The missing tax revenue could blow a $200 million hole in the city's budget.

Despite those statistics, new bars are popping up in the Union Square area, South of Market and the Financial District.

Bars like The Harlequin, which just opened a month and a half ago, are among the newcomers. Owner Phil Chen says he believes San Francisco will see a resurgence, and he's putting his money where his mouth is. 

"There are people, there's tourists here, and there's companies here as well," Chen said. "Not only doing conventions at Moscone, but there are companies that still have employees in the offices, and they are coming out to happy hour."

San Francisco's Office of Economic and Workforce Development says small business applications are trending upward, a sign of confidence. 

"We are getting over 200 requests in our Office of Small Business a week," said Sarah Dennis Phillips from San Francisco's Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "Two hundred individual businesses every week coming in trying to understand how they can open a new business in San Francisco."

It's not just small businesses that are betting on San Francisco. Venture capital companies have also been pouring billions into San Francisco locking down office space; part of that spurred on by speculation that artificial intelligence will fuel the next economic boom. 

"They represent up to about a third of all the companies looking for space in San Francisco," said Dennis Phillips. "I'm hearing about a million square feet of requirement so that those companies can grow in their office footprint."

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The city says it is working to help transition the downtown into a live and work space; but, there is little doubt that big businesses are an important part of the economic ecosystem. 

"We're also seeing small businesses respond to the uptick in occupancy" said Dennis Phillips. "It's still far lower than we'd like, and we still have a higher vacancy rate than we'd like, but it is trending upwards, and I think we're seeing small business pick up on that increased visitation and occupancy downtown."

While the hope is that A.I. will mean big business in San Francisco, those companies tend to run lean on employees, so it's not clear how big an impact they will have on the downtown area.

Interested in opening a bar in San Francisco? The city has a webpage with more information on how to do that. 


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