The pandemic has turned conversations about downtown Minneapolis into questions.

Is downtown back? Is downtown safe? Is downtown dead?

"'Do you have hope for downtown?'" people asked Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents part of the city center and affluent neighborhoods to the west. "'What do you think is going to happen with downtown?'"

So Goodman invited some of Minneapolis' biggest boosters to have a conversation about downtown with people who actually live there.

Downtown is different, Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, told the group gathered over boxed lunches at the University of St. Thomas.

Everyone who showed up for the conversation had masked up, presented proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, and walked by the bright-red warning sign on the front door about the unidentified woman who cracked a bottle over a student's head in the skyway last week.

But they still showed up. Anyone who shows up — at the office, at a restaurant, at a game, a show, a concert — is worth celebrating, as far as the downtown boosters are concerned. The crowds that came out for the NHL Winter Classic at Target Field. The second tenant that just signed a lease at the Dayton's Project. The 9,000 Shriners coming to town for a convention in July.

"Different doesn't have to be worse," said Cramer, who keeps a running tally online of "Downtown Reanimation" — returning office workers, crowded restaurants, light-rail riders, hotel bookings. "Different can be better."

Life is different downtown. When the audience had a chance to talk, they focused on changes for the worse. A downtown that feels less safe, less clean, less fun than the one they moved into. A downtown some of their friends don't want to visit.

But as pandemic shifts to endemic, the focus downtown is shifting from surviving COVID to living with it. A downtown of hybrid work schedules, split between home and office, and pop-up retail in vacant storefronts. But still, they hope, a place your friends want to visit again.

"The world is coming to Minneapolis," Meet Minneapolis president Melvin Tennant reassured the room, with all the optimism of someone who routinely pitches Minnesota tourism in January. "We're going to need each and every one of you to be the ambassadors that I know that you are."

Say nice things about Minneapolis, the speakers urged, again and again. There are enough voices out there talking about the crime, the boarded-up storefronts, the windchill.

"We've got a lot of good things happening, despite what maybe you see in the news and read about," said Sarah Anderson, a former state representative-turned-president and CEO of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Minneapolis.

"We are on the cusp of getting to that next level and getting on and moving on," Anderson added. "So when you're talking to your friends and they're doing a little bit of a Debby Downer … talk to them about what's going on, because we've got a lot going on for ourselves and we just need to band together and reinforce that."