Crowds began returning to Sixth Street only recently, a ray of economic hope for the downtown restaurants, bars and performance venues beaten down and left teetering financially over the past 15 months by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Saturday’s mass shooting — in which at least 14 people were wounded, two critically, in the early hours of the morning — is now bringing national notoriety to one of Austin’s most well-known entertainment districts, dealing a fresh blow to businesses in the area just as they were trying to regain their footing.
“For 35 years I’ve been on Sixth Street, and I’ve never heard of anything like this for all the time I’ve been here,” said Bob Woody, who operates 20 bars on Sixth Street. “Now this is the story people all around the world are hearing.”
It remains to be seen whether the shooting — and the news coverage of it — will have any ripple effects on Austin’s hospitality industry, which was pummeled during the pandemic.
The region’s leisure and hospitality sector shed more than 60,000 jobs in the initial weeks of the pandemic. With only about half having returned since then, the sector accounts for the majority of the Austin area’s continued pandemic-related job losses.
‘Sixth Street is our crown jewel’
Woody, whose bars include downtown hot spots Buford’s, Blind Pig Pub and Shakespeare’s Pub, believes the shooting will damage the Sixth Street district. In addition to the traditionally local younger crowd, Woody says Sixth Street also relies on tourists, conventioneers and international travelers.
“Sixth Street is our crown jewel — this is a global brand,” Woody said. “Any type of thing that tarnishes the reputation of any part of the city hurts our whole city. It hurts tourism; it hurts convention business in the future; it hurts hotel revenue.”
Michael Klein, president of the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance, also worries that bad publicity could hurt bars and nightclubs that have struggled to survive the harrowing past year.
“What terrible press to have,” Klein said. “I’ve seen it on every news station. People vote with their dollars. We know the fact is that Austin is obviously not a dangerous place, and there have been many shootings in urban areas. But headlines make an impact.”
Klein added, “If someone’s daughter is going to a bachelorette party and mom and dad see 13 people shot on Sixth Street, they might say, ‘Honey, why don’t you go to the beach instead?'”
Jon Hockenyos, president of Austin-based economic analysis firm TXP Inc., said such concerns are understandable. But he doesn’t think the shooting by itself will result in a blemish on Austin’s status as a top tourism and travel destination — unless it marks the beginning of a pattern and such events become more commonplace here.
Businesses still recovering from COVID-19 pandemic
Still, Hockenyos said many businesses owners in the area already were close to the edge financially coming out of the pandemic, so they have reason to worry about the fallout from the mass shooting.
“The margin for error is a lot smaller,” he said.
“All of these (business owners) are operating on much thinner margins and did all the things they had to do to scrape by” and make it to the other side of the pandemic, Hockenyos said. “I’m sure that if you are a business owner down there, you are thinking, ‘Oh my God, not one more thing.'”
Shannon Sedwick, who has owned Esther’s Follies on Sixth Street for 45 years, said she’s on the verge of fully reopening after more than “a year of a lot of work just to keep alive and to keep our cast together.”
Saturday’s shooting “is a very unfortunate blow, just (in terms of making) people feel uncomfortable about the choice to come down to Sixth Street,” Sedwick said.
Despite the incident, however, she said tourists and residents alike should consider Sixth Street a safe destination, provided they leave before around 1:30 a.m., when the crowds can get rowdy. Sedwick also said she has typically hired an off-duty police officer to stand watch outside Esther’s Follies and plans to do so again.
Sedwick, who is president of the Pecan Street Association and owns Esther’s Follies along with her husband, Michael Shelton, said Austin police are doing all they can to maintain order in the popular area, but she thinks the city should put more money toward security, whether that means more patrols or other measures.
Woody and Klein agreed. They said Austin officials should increase the city’s budget for pedestrian police patrols downtown.
“That’s easily curable,” Woody said. “If you allow forms of lawlessness, then you increase the amount of lawlessness.”
Angela Tharp, owner of live music venue Flamingo Cantina on Sixth Street, said the shooting was tragic, but mass shootings can and do happen anywhere.
“I’ve been here for 30 years, and I’ve seen a lot happen,” Tharp said. “When I first opened, it was not considered the best place in town, but that’s what I could afford, so I did.”
Tharp said continuing to operate a live music venue on Sixth Street, which is currently populated largely by bars, remains a challenge.
“We want our customers and our employees to be safe — that’s what it comes down to,” she said. “Our customers are very loyal and we know they continue to support us.”