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Seattle could pay beloved older businesses to keep them around

Judith Herrera and her son Carlos Reyes of Muy Macho restaurant in South Park
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Judith Herrera and her son Carlos Reyes of Muy Macho restaurant in South Park

Sometimes businesses that have been around forever disappear. That favorite dive bar or cheap restaurant closed to make way for a glitzy condo complex.

For a while, Seattle City Councilwomen Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold were trying to get rent control for businesses like that. But that idea didn’t fly. Now Herbold is exploring a backup plan.

Muy Macho

Carlos Reyes Junior attends South Seattle College.

"I want to be a pediatrician," he said, seated at his parents’ Mexican restaurant, Muy Macho. He helps out after school. 

Muy Macho has been part of the South Park neighborhood for 20 years. Reyes’ mother Judith Herrera has owned it for half that time. 

Herrera had always wanted a business, and growing up poor in Oaxaca she used to play “restaurant owner,” the way many kids played house. Even at that young age, she recognized that owning a business was key to providing for her family.

"She says it’s very important because we used this to raise the kids and have them have a future for them," Reyes translated. Muy Macho basically paid for Reyes’ college tuition.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Carlos Reyes at Muy Macho in South Park", "fid": "130329", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201609/carlos_junior.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Muy Macho lost many customers when the South Park Bridge was closed for four years.

Since the bridge reopened to traffic in 2014, the restaurant has had more customers. But it hasn’t reached the levels from before the bridge closed.

In proposing this idea, Herbold used Muy Macho as an example of the type of business that could get help from the city – perhaps for promotion. She said she couldn’t imagine the South Park neighborhood without Muy Macho. 

She’s still working on the details. But she says the city could devote real resources to businesses the community wants to save, “to help them deal with the pressures we see from a rapidly growing city.”

But you can’t just give money to a business, because it looks like corruption. Muy Macho is in Herbold’s district, and you could imagine how a system of government subsidy could be abused.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Muy Macho, South Park", "fid": "130332", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201609/Frontage_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]So it’s the neighborhood, not council members, that would nominate businesses for Herbold’s proposed “legacy business registry.”

Participation in the program would be voluntary, and the city’s help would come with contractual obligations.

"You create something that’s called a public benefits agreement,” said Herbold. “We do that currently with some of our cultural and arts institutions that are not city owned that might be non-profits. "

Herbold says small businesses like Muy Macho add value to communities, much like a museum, and it’s time to stop treating them like every other business. She’s hoping to get funding to develop the program next year.