Election after election, one Olympia issue consistently works its way to the forefront of voters’ and candidates’ minds: Downtown.
Many people see downtown as a defining feature of the city — a place where Olympians can enjoy culture, history and each other. Candidates in the upcoming Olympia City Council primary election describe the city’s downtown as intriguing and full of character.
“I think downtown is a vibrant and unique place to visit, shop and live,” said Mike Snodgrass, a City Council candidate. “It’s not a standardized, cookie-cutter type of downtown. The unique businesses offer a variety of goods and services that invite a diverse group of people to visit.”
But there’s a flip side. Many of the candidates recognize that voters don’t always feel safe downtown, and also believe significant efforts need to be made to help the homeless who are so visible downtown.
“Homelessness and public safety are top concerns about downtown,” said candidate Deborah Lee. “Many people feel that it’s not safe, but really couldn’t share stories about any encounters they personally experienced. It was more of a feeling of insecurity of being in what should be the heart of the city for all Olympians.”
Olympia voters should already have their ballots for the Aug. 1 primary election. These ballots include three Olympia City Council races, each with three candidates.
The Position No. 5 race includes candidates Allen Miller, Lisa Parshley and Deborah Lee. Julie Hankins, who holds the seat, decided not to seek re-election.
For Position No. 6, incumbent Jeannine Roe faces challengers Mike Snodgrass and Renata Rollins. In Position No. 7, incumbent Jim Cooper faces challengers Danny Marsh and Heather Wood.
When asked about their views on downtown, many of the candidates referenced tax increases that the Olympia City Council intends for upcoming ballots. A measure that will appear on November’s ballot would bolster the city’s police department. Funds would come from an increase Olympia’s property tax by by $0.44 per $1,000 of value.
The city has proposed a plan for the public safety revenue that includes additions to the downtown walking patrol, a community policing program and a mental health response team.
A bolstered police force downtown would help Olympia residents feel safer there, Roe said.
“The presence of police officers in our downtown core helps bring civility to the streets and a sense of safety,” Roe said.
Candidates Snodgrass, Miller and Marsh also voiced support for increasing the downtown patrols. However, Marsh opposes the November ballot measure, arguing that city officials should use money currently available to hire additional officers.
“It’s ridiculous that they’re not funding the police department with what they already have,” Marsh said.
“I’m not saying I would reduce taxes, but I certainly don’t think we should be taxing people more.”
Marsh also came out against another tax increase that the current Olympia City Council plans to place on the February, 2018 ballot. The measure would benefit affordable and supportive housing. It would increase the city’s sales tax by 0.01 percent, and generate about $2.1 million per year in revenue for housing.
Cooper, however, said that many of the issues associated with downtown could be alleviated by this tax increase, which would increase low-barrier shelters and supportive housing. Snodgrass also offered his full support for the measure.
But two candidates offered different approaches to addressing homelessness. Roe said she’d like to see homelessness be treated as more of a regional issue, and for Thurston County, Lacey and Tumwater governments to take a more active role in addressing it. She argued that Olympia is now absorbing the homeless populations of neighboring cities.
Rollins said city leaders should view downtown as a metric for how the city is doing as a whole. She alleges that the current council hasn’t paid enough attention to affordability.
“Almost no one who works service jobs downtown can afford to live downtown,” Rollins said. “That is a red flag. We need housing affordable for workers, as well as very low-income members of our community on (Supplemental Security Income) and disability.”
Parshley wrote in her submission to The Olympian’s Voter Guide that she would support rapid rehousing programs.
Wood wrote in her entry that she would “declare a state of emergency to immediately house all in need.”
While housing and public safety are the defining downtown issues for most candidates, a few — including Lee, Rollins, Snodgrass and Miller — mentioned sea level rise as an issue the incoming council members will need to take seriously. The city, along with the Port of Olympia and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, is working on a $250,000 study regarding the phenomenon’s potential effect on downtown.
Miller identified Capitol Lake as a main player in the issue, and said one of his priorities would be restoring and reopening the troubled body of water to the public.
“Swimming and small boat recreation in Capitol Lake will bring hundreds of people downtown on a daily basis, which will increase revenue for downtown businesses,” Miller said.
Parshley took an opposite stance in her submission to The Olympian’s Voter Guide, writing that she would support a that she would promote a “healthy, restored Deschutes estuary.”
Despite their differing views, the candidates agree on one point: the downtown district is essential to Olympia, and it’s worth the effort of improving.
“Downtowns are for everyone,” Rollins said. “That’s what makes them so beautiful, so challenging, and so vital.”
Learn more about the candidates
To learn more about the Olympia City Council candidates and their views —as well as other candidates on the Thurston County primary ballot — visit The Olympian’s online Voter Guide at bit.ly/OLYvoterguide.