INDIANAPOLIS — Blue corduroy jackets are back across Indianapolis this week. More than 65,000 are in town for the Future Farmers of America convention with teenagers in the Circle City from as far away as Hawaii.
The 2023 FFA Convention could be record-setting with more than 70,000 people in downtown Indy.
”Right now, it feels and looks to be record-setting,” said Chris Gahl, the executive vice president of Visit Indy.
Gahl said this lines up with what the convention industry in Indy has seen – a return of visitors and record convention crowds.
”When you look at our hotel occupancy, we’re only about 6 percentage points off what occupancy was in our downtown hotel partners pre-pandemic in what was a record-setting 2019,” Gahl said.
But, convention crowds are just one phase of downtown recovery, a study by the University of Toronto tracks unique visitors to downtowns across the country. Researchers compare cell phone data in a set downtown geographic area from March to mid-June in 2023 to the same period in 2019.
The study shows Indy is seeing 79% of the unique visitors this year as it saw in 2019. That ranks 28th in North America and 4th in the Midwest.
Taylor Schaffer with Downtown Indy Inc. said downtown is continuing to recover and evolve.
”I think you can feel a difference downtown,” Schaffer said. “I think you can consistently feel a difference downtown. We see more people coming into the office on weekdays, we see more people coming out and about from their apartments or residences.”
Both Schaffer and Gahl have paid attention to these studies from the University of Toronto, but say researchers do not include the Indiana Convention Center when monitoring cell phone data for unique visitors.
Dr. Karen Chapple is the director of the School of Cities and Professor of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto, and she led the downtown recovery study. She shared this map with FOX59/CBS4 showing the geographic area the study used for Indianapolis’ downtown.
The map includes Monument Circle and blocks around it but only includes a portion of the Indiana Convention Center at the corner of Maryland and Capitol.
”Tens of thousands of individuals on any given day,” Gahl said. “This is a building that runs at 65% to 70% occupancy and has been for several years.”
Gahl said he believes the recovery numbers for downtown Indy would be higher if the entire convention center was included. It is worth noting, the same geographic area was used when comparing 2019 and 2023.
Gahl said the three phases that make up a healthy downtown are tourism, people living in downtown and people working in downtown.
”Remote work continues and office buildings continue to wrestle with how to have a healthy work-life balance and work-from-home balance,” Gahl said. “And so two of the three are extremely healthy and the third we continue to work on.”
Downtown Indy Inc. uses AI technology to measure the amount of people who are returning to the workplace.
”There’s been a steady increase in that return to work population as those policies evolve,” Schaffer said. “As much as a 20% increase this year compared to last year for in-office work habits.”
Downtown Indy Inc. reports office visits from January through October of 2023 were 70% of what they were during that same period in 2019.