by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That is the moral of the story for the small business owners, all of whom are minorities, along construction ravaged 23rd Avenue and their fight to receive mitigation funds from the City, essentially saving them from financial ruin.
The story began months ago when the 23rd Avenue Construction Project, sold to the neighborhood as happening in phases, began, and business stopped dead in its tracks say the small business owners.
The $46 million overhaul of 23rd Avenue between S. Jackson St. and E. John St. will transform the street into a more efficient, safer route for cars, transit, pedestrians, and (due in part to an adjacent greenway) bicyclists.
But over the past few months, with sidewalks closed, streets being torn up and what little parking there was available without construction all but gone, people just stopped going to the cafés, flower shops, and take out restaurants that otherwise report a fair amount of business.
In particular, says the owner of 701 Coffee, Sara Mae, she saw her customers drop from 80 per day to less than 20. Obviously, that is not a sustainable number of people and income to keep the doors open.
Sara Mae, who is openly Transgender, is the small business owner that rallied others such as Justin Gerardy of Standard Brewing, Nop Zay of Mamas Cafe, and Saad Ali of 99 Cent Plus to push for mitigation funds they had originally been denied because City of Seattle officials didn't think they would be as negatively impacted as they have been.
The issue, however, is much bigger than these businesses being initially denied mitigation funds. The fact of the matter is, say the 23rd Avenue business owners, they were unfairly denied the money to keep them afloat when businesses in other neighborhoods had received funds.
In 2014, the City of Seattle made $15 million available to businesses that had to close due to seawall construction. Sound Transit compensated businesses that dealt with years of construction along the light rail line in South Seattle.
In short, only businesses in the Central District, Seattle's historically black neighborhood, were denied mitigation funds. Something that Sara Mae says is unacceptable from a City government that claims to be looking out for small businesses during a time of historic growth that is gentrifying many parts of the City, leaving businesses no option but to relocate or close, sending rent prices sky high, and ultimately changing the very look and feel of the city.
However, good news came this week as Mayor Ed Murray announced Wednesday the creation of a federally-backed $650,000 fund to help 23rd Avenue businesses most at risk of closing. According to Murray, to qualify for assistance, businesses must have five or fewer employees and demonstrate the project has negatively impacted the business. By using $400,000 of federal Community Development Block Grants already under City control, the City avoids violating the state constitution. The other $250,000 will come from the Seattle Investment Fund, which is a private corporation created by the City to manage fees generated through a federal tax credit program.
In addition, Murray ordered a race and social justice analysis of the project to examine claims made that the project was a systematic attempt to displace minorities and lower income people. If it turns out the project was racist in nature, Murray says he will 'shut it down.'
'This is a question of is this project intrinsically racist,' said Murray. 'Is it going to move the African American community further out of its historic neighborhood?'
In all, 20 to 30 businesses are expected to qualify for mitigation funds, according to the Office of Economic Development. Details, like how much businesses will individually get, are still being ironed out.
According to City officials, the funds would be made available after the City Council approves the plan, which is expected to happen soon. Office of Economic Development (OED) director Brian Surratt said the first checks will start arriving at businesses within weeks. In fact, OED plans to have a place online where businesses can register to get regular updates on the process almost immediately. In addition, Surratt has urged the small business owners to gather tax and expense reports so the funds can be quickly distributed based upon the criteria that Mayor Murray outlined in order for a business to receive mitigation funds. OED says they will hold workshops on the process and develop a form for businesses to file.
It is important to note that business not eligible for direct assistance may still be able to receive deferments on their utilities and business license tax, said Surratt.
Surratt says the City would not seek a third party administrator for the distribution of the funds.
'Given the scale and estimated number of businesses, we feel like we can manage this internally,' he said.
As for Sara Mae, owner of 701 Coffee, she isn't claiming victory just yet. 'I'm just wanting to make sure there is a follow through with this,' she told Seattle Gay News. 'I want our group to see it to the end. It's been a tough battle for all of us.'
In the end, Sara Mae says, 'We look forward to stepping back behind our counters once they come out with a final proposal, and we agree to support it publicly.'
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