With private patrols gone, downtown businesses ask for city’s help: ‘Now I’m scared’

Olympia City Council members on Tuesday defended their response to homelessness in the face of criticism from business owners who say city leaders aren’t doing enough to protect their interests.

Tuesday’s council meeting was the first since a private security company hired by downtown businesses suspended patrols after a confrontation with protesters who argued patrols targeted homeless people.

Julia Ward owns a hair salon in west Olympia that is moving downtown early next year.

“One of our biggest sells coming downtown was the private security and that is what we were able to sell our stylists in feeling comfortable coming downtown,” Ward told the council.

“Now I’m scared. As a business owner, I feel liable for my clients and my staff. They’re scared.”

Others told council members they feared speaking out could make them a target of protesters but they need the city’s help dealing with problems related to homelessness.

“It is costing us, which is going to cost you your bottom line,” said Todd Wagner of Wagner’s European Bakery and Cafe on Capitol Way. “That’s your tax base, that’s your money. We’re seeing it, people are afraid to come downtown, and if you can’t see that, then you really need to look at things.”

City Manager Steve Hall said police are adding patrols in downtown now that the private security is gone.

Council members denounced the protesters but largely defended the city’s response to homelessness, including opening a tent camp Monday near the Olympia Transit Center.

Last week, four anonymous business owners sued to stop that from opening. A judge on Monday granted their request for a temporary restraining order that limited the number of people who could move in.

Mayor Cheryl Selby described the camp as a way to provide stability to people living on the streets and help them move onto better options, such as the tiny home village the city will open next month near Plum Street Southeast.

“This is better than unmanaged campsites. It is one of the ways we are trying, and we are listening,” Selby said.

Wagner said later he didn’t think council members responded to his concerns. Homelessness is the top issue among business owners he talks to, he said, and the council is partly to blame for their frustration.

“They let it accumulate to this point,” Wagner said.