Boston lures workers back downtown with DJs, food trucks and — free Dunks

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Downtown workers line up for free coffee, part of a city-supported program to lure remote workers back to their offices. (Walter Wuthmann/WBUR)
Downtown workers line up for free coffee, part of a city-supported program to lure remote workers back to their offices. (Walter Wuthmann/WBUR)

If you hand out free coffee, will they come? Boston thinks it's worth a try.

On Wednesday, the city offered free Dunkin' coffee — both hot and iced — as part of a new effort to lure remote workers and visitors back downtown.

The city is working with the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District to hold a series of block parties on Wednesdays through the summer to help revitalize the city's core. In addition to free coffee, the city also plans to offer beer gardens, food trucks, music performances and even historical re-enactors.

"We’re just trying to make sure people understand downtown Boston is clean, safe and welcoming," said George Comeau, marketing and brand manager for the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District.

Boston has lifted all its pandemic restrictions on businesses — but many office workers have yet to return downtown, making it hard for many local vendors to survive.

"I hope people will think about all the things they did love about downtown Boston, and decide to come back," Comeau said.

About 13% of downtown offices are now vacant, more than double the figure before the pandemic. And foot traffic is less than half of what it was in 2019, according to sensors operated by the Downtown Business Improvement District.

Some office workers like Ellie Dieter said they appreciated the effort to revive the neighborhood.

"I like feeling a little bit like a person again, rather than just rolling out of bed and walking five feet to my desk," said Dieter, as she waited in line for free coffee at the mobile Dunkin'.

Dieter said she started working in person at her downtown office again in February. But she thinks it will take more than free coffee and other perks to draw all the people back.

She said companies need to establish health and safety precautions so employees can "feel good about coming back in."

Brian Appelman, a real estate agent who works in the area, said some of his favorite local restaurants still feel mostly empty.

"We go to lunch all the time around here, and it’s been a bummer to see some of the places struggling where you’re usually seeing lines out the door," he said.

Just around the corner, the smell of fruit and yeast floated out of Democracy Brewing.

Democracy was once a popular spot for drinks after work. But co-founder James Razsa said the office workers have yet to come back in large numbers. Instead, they’ve mostly seen tourists and other visitors.

Still, Razsa said he finally feels like his brewery is on solid footing again after struggling through the lockdowns.

"We definitely thought the game was up a few times, for sure," he said. "And we felt like we could hang on, things would get better."

Razsa said he’s also happy for all the bars, cafes and restaurants that have managed to survive so far.

"The more that we can have downtown rebound and be exciting again, the more people are going to want to come visit and pop around and get drinks here, and go to a show, and get dinner there," he said. "I think it’s really starting to come back and it’s super exciting for us."

Theater workers Lucille Ferragamo and Karen Kosko said they’ve been putting on shows in person since venues reopened last summer.

"We went right back to work," Ferragamo said. "Once they opened the doors, put the curtain up, we were there, in the aisles."

Kosko said the streets still felt largely empty a few months ago. But now visitors are starting to crowd the theaters. "They’re craving it, they need it," she said.

The foot traffic sensors back that up. Though down from 2019, foot traffic has surged 64% over the past year.

The city hopes to boost those numbers even further. So in coming months, they plan to keep trying to make downtown more attractive — with street performers, food trucks and, of course, free coffee.

This segment aired on April 14, 2022.


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Walter Wuthmann State Politics Reporter
Walter Wuthmann is a state politics reporter for WBUR.



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