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23rd Ave Road Project Driving Central District Businesses To Bankruptcy

Central District business owners will get a chance to tell city officials about the problems on 23rd Avenue on Tuesday. They say a big road project there has scared away their customers. They want a financial bailout, but the city says no.


Lois Harris has been running the Vogue Coiffure Beauty Salon on 23rd Avenue for over 50 years. She still uses the same teal colored hair dryer chairs she bought back in 1966.

Harris: “Everything works! It works. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

One of the first signs of trouble came when the contractors shut her water off, without notice. Harris was shampooing a woman’s hair at the time.

Harris: “Well, yeah, I had to run out there and say, hey, hey, hey, turn the water back on! I’m in here, I’m working.”

Harris towel-dried the customer and sent her on her way. She says two hours later, the contractors turned back on the flow of water. But they can’t turn back on the flow of customers.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Construction has narrowed traffic on 23rd Avenue to one lane through Seattle's Central District.", "fid": "124159", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/IMG_1568.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Harris: “Clients don’t want to come. Because of the situation out there.”

KUOW: “Have you had any customers today?”

Harris: “Yeah. Just one! Just one! So it’s slow, it’s really, really slow. And usually, I’m busy. So this is what we’re dealing with now, I’m in here all alone, waiting, for clients.”

City officials say the project will bring much needed improvements to a long neglected neighborhood. They say the project will make traffic run more smoothly and will make it safer too.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Nop Zay runs a drive through espresso stand on 23rd Avenue. She doesn't open her drive through window much lately.", "fid": "124156", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201602/IMG_1528.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Just down the street, Nop Zay looks out the window of her drive-through espresso stand. Nobody drives up to that window these days. One of the only people who bought coffee today was her own son.

Zay: “He pay me five dollar for a cup of coffee! [Laughs] I’m trying to laugh but my tear coming out of my eye.”

Zay has a petition on her counter, asking the city to help business owners here.

Zay: “I want help. I need help. If they don’t help us, you know, we’re going to be like this, probably have to file bankruptcy.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Nop Zay's drive through espresso stand.", "fid": "124157", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/IMG_1540.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]These business owners like to compare themselves to the businesses on Seattle’s waterfront. Some of those businesses were compensated during construction of the seawall.

Zay: “This is, how you say that in English? It doesn’t treat us equally. It look like we got left out. They say no discrimination, no whatsoever, but this is - we got left out. Yeah.”

See A Big Change In Your Neighborhood? Let Us Know The Details

Rick Sheridan is with the Seattle Department of Transportation. He says what happened with businesses on the waterfront was very different. He says the city can’t afford to pay businesses when they’re disrupted by construction.

Sheridan: “It would add significant costs to the construction projects city wide. So with limited resources for transportation improvements, to add construction mitigation for every project, would make those projects far more expensive.”

Sheridan points to $300,000 the city is investing to help promote the Central District. That work falls under the purview of Brian Surratt, who heads the city’s office of economic development. As an example of that work, he said his office will help people like salon owner Lois Harris with their marketing plans.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Brian Surratt, who runs Seattle's Office of Economic Development, says the city can't compensate business owners for losses during construction, but it can provide other forms of relief.", "fid": "124179", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/brian_surratt.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Joshua McNichols"}]]Surratt: “We need to drill in to understanding who are her customers, who are the ones who are still coming, and who hasn’t been coming in the past several months with the construction going in, and then how do we directly get to them. And it’s still a very residential neighborhood. And are there opportunities to bring in new customers.”

The business owners say what they really need isn’t marketing advice. It’s money. They’ve petitioned Mayor Ed Murray and City Council Member Kshama Sawant to change the system. Sawant says she doesn’t have any easy answers.

[asset-images[{"caption": "If it's not broke, don't fix it, says the owner of the Vogue Coiffure Beauty Salon of the vintage equipment that she's never seen the need to replace. She doesn't see what was so bad about 23rd Avenue, either, or why all this construction was necessary.", "fid": "124158", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/IMG_1508.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Sawant: “It’s very hard. What they’re facing is a combination of already difficult conditions that all small businesses face, especially minority- and women-owned. On top of that, having your customer base really basically just snatched away from you because people don’t have a way of getting to the businesses.”

Sawant invited business owners and city officials to come brief the City Council about the situation on Tuesday morning.

Work on 23rd Avenue is scheduled to wrap up by early 2017.