In the summer of 2019, customers almost always had to wait in line to buy a soda or snack at the Eagle Store in downtown Rochester. That’s rarely the case today as the store usually has only two or three shoppers at a time.
Despite the return of more Mayo Clinic patients as the pandemic wanes, the customers have not returned to the long-time shop at 23 Second St. SW on the once bustling corner of Second Street and First Avenue.
The Williams brothers, who run the small general store along with their 91-year-old father, say it isn’t a mystery why their business is still down by 50 percent or more.
“We need people to come back and work downtown. We need events back at the Civic Center. We need Mayo back at 100 percent,” said Steve Williams as a single customer browsed the shelves. “It is really quiet. You could roll a bowling bowl down the sidewalk in the morning and not hit anybody.”
They say the store has weathered many ups and downs in Rochester's downtown durings its long history. However, Mayo Clinic employees were always there in the past, no matter the construction projects or other obstacles. For them, that's the piece of the economic recovery that is still missing.
“It’s the only 20 minutes that the rest of the world doesn’t matter.”
- Billy Steinberg, Kasson
Mayo Clinic officials say approximately 2,900 of the 20,000 Mayo Clinic employees who were previously based downtown now work remotely off campus a majority of the time. That’s an increase from the previous estimate of 1,500 employees no longer in downtown that Mayo Clinic made in October.
John Williams, practicing his guitar at the checkout counter as he waits for customers, said it feels more like 10,000 Mayo Clinic employees are gone.
“We depend on foot traffic. I used to see Mayo employees come in here two or three times a day. Now I’m lucky if I see them once a week,” he said.
A look through the windows of the Massey Building across Second Street shows rows and rows of empty Mayo Clinic desks. Mayo Clinic has already told the building's owner that it will not be renewing its lease for that space.
John Williams pointed out that Mayo Clinic started moving downtown employees to its 41st Street campus in northwest Rochester even before the pandemic. He said any employee moved out of downtown is a loss of a customer for at least one restaurant or shop.
Of course, Mayo Clinic is not the only employer to shift staff to working remotely during the pandemic or even move out of downtown. However, it is, by far, the largest.
Essence Skin Clinic, next to the Eagle Store, moved out of downtown in May and its high-profile spot remains empty. Its owner cited the many construction projects and design charges downtown as the primary reason for their departures. Valor Mechanical recently packed up its downtown office and moved to Stewartville. Accounting and financial services firm Smith Schafer and Associates recently announced that it plans to move its 45 employees out of downtown.
Steve Williams estimated the non-Mayo employees that are no longer downtown at about 1,000.
Michelle Mikkalson, who works for the brokerage investment firm Stifel and visits the store about once a week, is still there as she has been throughout the pandemic. She was in the Eagle Store on Wednesday to buy a greeting card.
“These guys are awesome,” she said, gesturing to the Williamses. “It has been eerie with downtown so quiet, but it is getting better... I think Mayo needs to bring more people back.”
Mayo employees or not, Rochester’s downtown streets are getting more and more active again as patients and others return. However, it’s not enough for the Eagle Store to see the crowds that it did pre-pandemic.
“I get a whole lot of practice these days,” said John Williams looking up from his guitar. “It’s bad for my business, but I guess it is good for my guitar playing.”