City of Olympia needs fresh ideas for downtown

December 27, 2013 

A downtown Olympia employee new to our community tells me she’s afraid as she never is in Seattle — co-workers have been chased after closing.

While I shop at a favorite downtown bookstore a disruptive man is evicted a second time, swearing violently upon exiting.

I’m at a hair salon and the manager, evicting a trespasser, says downtown businesses need bouncers.

In front of a downtown toy store I hear a couple arguing loudly about methadone.

It is not reactionary to acknowledge downtown Olympia is imperiled. Indeed, if social disorder makes our city’s core an unattractive place, the revenue will not exist to better serve those with chemical dependency or housing needs. Disorder creates more disorder.

I remember a pre-Capital Mall downtown featuring a JCPenney and Sears. I swam in Capitol Lake. As recently as my college days there was vibrancy downtown not present today. Instead, as a legislator I had to push a law on problem bars. Before painting downtown disorder with a broad brush, remember those causing trouble in bars concentrated downtown, or after leaving them, are not homeless.

Problems didn’t materialize overnight. At Evergreen, when I lived and worked downtown, I remember street kids sleeping in a warehouse. I cannot think of homelessness without imagining my late uncle on Seattle’s Skid Row; he pulled himself out of alcoholism to be a shelter’s counselor. I thought of him when I got a law through preventing church encampments from being interfered with.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers to the current crisis, but denial isn’t one. As the homeless roll suitcases by City Hall, premises they’re banned from sleeping on, some policymakers inside seem less focused on the problem outside their doors and more on creating yet another downtown park.

Downtown’s problem isn’t lack of open space. When my most liberal friends share their fears, the need for another park – however meritorious – doesn’t come up. While I go downtown almost every day to shop, or frequent restaurants (yes, I take my 11-year-old), they’re scared to – especially those who are elderly. Should we dismiss their fears by suggesting they lack fortitude, or acknowledge them by improving the situation?

Funding from the city’s coffers cannot be diverted from housing and human services to a park. We need transitional housing, located as close to the need as is reasonably possible, coupled with mental health and chemical dependency services. I completely understand not-in-my-backyard angst about transitional housing, such as a no-barrier shelter, but the alternative presently seems to be the Olympia Library. There are no easy answers. Problems can be better managed but will not disappear.

Indeed, matters may worsen. By failing to extend emergency jobless benefits, Congress denied 94,100 Washingtonians, by the end of 2014, any income (or hope) whatsoever.

Downtown needs more commerce. One idea is asking the state to return tax revenue for an arts district (I once pushed this for Yakima). I enjoyed watching the Washington Center’s remodeling – especially its exterior homage to a Liberty Theater for which I have a 1935 photo. Tie the center to two theaters where I watched movies as a kid: The Capitol and State Theaters. Strengthen the core.

We need ideas, not denial.

Olympia attorney Brendan Williams is a former 22nd District state representative.

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