Results of a recent survey show most downtown Olympia business owners are economically stable, but are frustrated by ongoing problems with parking and vagrancy.
The Thurston County Economic Development Council shared the survey results Friday morning at City Hall with a crowd of downtown stakeholders.
The survey was conducted Aug. 1 to Sept. 30. Of the 465 for-profit businesses targeted for the survey, 104 businesses participated. Survey respondents came from retail (35 percent), office (29 percent), food/entertainment (22 percent), industrial (7 percent) and personal care (7 percent) sectors.
Growth and workforce
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About 57 percent of the businesses reported they are growing, 29 percent said they were maturing, 9 percent said they were an “emerging” new business, and 5 percent said they were declining.
Between 2013 and 2015, about 43 percent of survey respondents increased their workforce, while 45 percent remained stable and 12 percent decreased their workforce. Of the respondents, about 31 percent had a job opening at the time of the survey. Most of the openings were service sector positions such as personal assistant, food preparer, delivery driver, barista, cashier and receptionist.
About 45 percent expect to increase their workforce within the next two years, but about 31 percent of participating businesses said they had difficulty finding quality employees.
When asked about the advantages of doing business downtown, respondents cited a centralized location, high visibility, foot traffic, and the proximity to cultural amenities and the Capitol Campus.
Additional businesses that respondents desired in downtown Olympia include a grocery store, pharmacy, small electronics store, artisan and boutique shops, a laundromat and a community pool. Businesses that would not be a good fit for downtown include tattoo parlors, bars, big box retailers, marijuana dispensaries and smoke shops, according to the survey.
Most businesses in downtown Olympia consider themselves to be a “destination business” and report that drop-in foot traffic accounts for about 25 percent of sales.
Of the 104 businesses, about 33 percent identify their market as South Sound residents within a 10-mile radius. About 48 percent identified their market as regional, 13 percent reach a national market, and 6 percent identify their primary market as international.
About 85 percent of respondents lease their building, with 14 percent reporting that the building is in poor condition. About 11 percent rate their landlord’s responsiveness as poor. About 30 percent have plans to expand in the next three years.
The survey asked businesses to identify “the single most important thing that could be done to support business and economic development in downtown Olympia.” The top two suggestions are to address issues with the transient population and to increase access to parking.
The transient population creates a negative perception that discourages customers and visitors from coming downtown, according to the survey. Businesses also are concerned that limited parking discourages customers from shopping downtown. The survey notes a desire for free street parking and a parking garage.
Other top responses for improving downtown include more police presence, more market-rate housing and urban density, more cleanliness, more pedestrian friendliness, public restroom availability, more festivals and events, and better communication to help coordinate improvements.
Although the survey was sent to businesses in the downtown core, the participants were not asked for information such as location, age or ethnicity.
Mark Rentfrow, the city’s downtown liaison, told attendees Friday the survey “didn’t get that granular” and that “different parts of downtown see issues differently.”
This notion was reinforced by Kyle Wiese, project manager for the Thurston Economic Development Council. He pointed out that the offices near the Port of Olympia have ample parking and might have had a different opinion on the parking issue.
Thurston First Bank president Jim Haley told attendees that the business community needs to take charge, improve downtown conditions and stop being the “silent majority.”
“We have to provide the investment. We have to provide the passion,” said Haley, who modified a quote by John F. Kennedy to fit downtown Olympia. “Don’t ask what the city can do for us. Ask what we can do for the city.”