We can’t let downtown Olympia slip

OlympianJuly 25, 2013 

Olympia police officers Steve Hurd investigates outside the west end of the train tunnel following multiple stabbings in downtown Olympia on Tuesday, July 16, 2013.

TONY OVERMAN — Staff photographer Buy Photo

It’s tempting to dismiss the recent physical assault, stabbings and a bank robbery in downtown Olympia as an aberration, perhaps attributable to rising summer temperatures. Violent criminal activity does seem to occur in waves, and periods of no crime represent the norm.

But some facts are hard to ignore. These problems mostly occur in downtown Olympia, not in business areas on the west side, Lacey or Tumwater. Most of the problems involve transients or street people. Alcohol and drugs usually play a role.

The individual arrested in a recent stabbing came here from California with a prior arrest record, presumably not for a job but to just hang out with other transients. During his six months here, he managed to acquire a pending assault charge and a court warrant. Now he’s charged with a life-threatening knife attack.

Isn’t it worth asking why such a person is drawn to downtown Olympia? Does our vision for downtown include a haven for such people in Sylvester Park, a state jewel in the center of our downtown and across from the former Capitol building, or the artesian well site?

Why is this person from California attracted to Olympia, rather than some young Silicon Valley Internet hotshot seeking out a vibrant entrepreneurial and creative culture? Why can’t we be that city?

If we keep rationalizing about problems that always seem to be festering just below the surface, downtown will never realize a grander vision. Downtown Olympia has so much unfulfilled potential as a dynamic business district, lively residential neighborhood and culturally rich social gathering center, which makes recent events all the more frustrating.

The city is taking some positive steps. At the top of that list is the city’s plan to eliminate access to single-serve alcoholic drinks. On the other hand, creating another park-like gathering space at the Artesian Well site feels like a step backward.

There are no easy answers to these questions. Many middle-sized and larger cities struggle with these issues.

Perhaps we expect more because few cities have the waterfront and natural beauty bestowed upon downtown Olympia. And maybe that comes with an obligation to do better and a duty to tackle difficult problems for the greater good.

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