The Minneapolis Convention Center fully reopened Friday, ending 14 months of limited activity due to COVID-19 and providing another spark downtown as workers begin to return to offices and entrepreneurs take a chance on new business.

The convention center, a huge driver of business for downtown restaurants, hotels and retailers, is open to gatherings with no capacity and social distancing limits, under a recent executive order from Gov. Tim Walz.

"Although COVID-19 severely limited in-person relationship-building over the past year, we're excited to welcome guests back to our venue and city and are fully prepared to ensure that all events we host are safe and successful," Jeff Johnson, the center's executive director, said in a statement.

The center next weekend will host the United States Strongman Nationals and GeekCraft Expo. Usage is scheduled to accelerate through the summer, leading up to the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association Marketplace on Aug. 5 to 8.

The reopening of the convention center management is a milestone because of the thousands of visiting conventioneers it routinely adds to the mix of downtown residents and commuting office workers.

Sabrina Jones, who a few weeks ago moved her Body Love Products business into the IDS Center's skyway retail level, is pleased by what she's seeing. The business is part of the Sistah Co-op she co-founded that provides collaborative space for Black women and other people of color in one of the highest-profile retail locations in the city.

"A month in, we are encouraged," Jones said. " As folks are coming back to work, they notice the shop being open and we've already made quite a few customers from the banks and restaurants and offices in IDS and other buildings. We've already got repeat clients. That make us feel good."

The Downtown Council estimates that downtown office worker-occupancy has risen from about 15% several weeks ago to around 25%. Employers, according to surveys, expect something around a third of workers to be back on board this summer and 50%-plus by fall.

That would be significant in a downtown that boasted 200,000-plus workers before the pandemic hit in March 2020. The council estimates about 300 restaurants and retail locations are now open downtown, or about 80% of sites. Many are operating at reduced hours and capacity.

Afro Deli in the Baker Center just reopened. And Noa, a new restaurant, is replacing Mission, which closed in early 2020 after a 17-year run as the cornerstone eatery on the ground floor of the IDS Center.

Maricela Gallarzo, owner of Planet Smoothie in Gaviidae Common on the Nicollet Mall, said she sees more people downtown every week and her fruit-laden cold drinks are increasingly popular as warm spring weather arrives.

Jim Durda, manager of City Center, said its retail occupancy is now 62%. He says that will climb to 67% by September and 72% in early 2022.

Target, City Center's largest office tenant by far, is vacating its space to consolidate elsewhere, but it has a 10-year-remaining lease obligation and is working with management on replacement tenants.

"Outside of Target, office space occupancy from the bottom of the pandemic to today has more than doubled," Durda said. "We have small waves of tenants returning … with larger volumes returning after school starts in the fall. Restaurant sales are slowly growing.

"The downtown activations of the Farmers Market, Minnesota Twins, music and theater productions, the opening of bars and restaurants are starting and will pay off."

Durda said he's talking to small businesses looking for space in the heart of downtown and that the architectural firms are busy and construction companies are bidding business.

"This looks and feels very much like the early stages of a rebound," said Durda, who has been managing buildings in downtown Minneapolis for more than 30 years.