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Survey: Safety a top concern among Bellingham businesses

Council responds with vote to criminalize drug use

More than 40% of downtown Bellingham businesses that responded to a survey said they plan to relocate or close this year
More than 40% of downtown Bellingham businesses that responded to a survey said they plan to relocate or close this year (Trenton Almgren-Davis/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Recovery from COVID-19 lockdowns has been slow, and some business owners worry they can no longer stay downtown due to longstanding safety concerns, according to a new survey by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership. 

Meanwhile, behind the scenes and in public meetings, city and business leaders are brainstorming solutions to the complex social crises that have emerged downtown.

BreAnne Green, owner of Greenhouse Home on Holly Street and Cornwall Avenue, said depressed sales at her business was “100 percent due to the public’s concern over the health and safety of downtown.”

Sales at Greenhouse Home through early March had dipped 12% compared to last year and have fallen even more steeply since then, Green said. The drop-off has led her to question the viability of her business in the heart of Bellingham’s downtown.

“Since December, [sales] really plummeted, and if they were to continue at such a rate — I can’t even go much farther,” Green said in an interview.

In her survey response, Rhiannon Troutman, owner of Fringe Boutique on State Street, said sales grew slightly in 2022 compared to 2021, but revenue is still 70% below 2019 levels.

“I hear over and over from customers and friends that they just don’t come downtown anymore, and there are many reasons for that but I think primarily safety concerns and more people working from home,” Troutman said. “I’m getting desperate and know that something needs to change for me to stay in business.”

Of 53 downtown businesses surveyed by Downtown Bellingham Partnership, 22 out of 53, or 42%, said they planned to move out of downtown or close. Another 13 said they would move or expand within the downtown. These figures represent a small fraction of the more than 500 businesses contacted for the survey.

Public safety was the No. 1 concern expressed in the downtown survey, cited by 55% of respondents.

Fringe is moving to the corner of Holly and Commercial streets, near the parking garage formerly known as the Parkade. Troutman said in the survey that she fears for her employees’ safety and her own, as they navigate “homeless camps, drug deals and loitering teenagers who are up to god knows what” in that part of downtown.

Business owners and city officials also have cited the frequent, flagrant use of fentanyl in downtown Bellingham’s public spaces, and the toll the opioid is taking on its users. Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig told the city council on March 27 her department had responded to 107 drug overdoses so far this year, compared to 70 all of last year.

“Fentanyl is a game-changer,” city council member Dan Hammill said in an interview. “This is not marijuana. This isn’t alcohol. This is not even heroin. This has completely changed the landscape of drug use.”

Hammill said concern over the spike in drug overdoses and conversations with business owners prompted him to support Mayor Seth Fleetwood’s proposal to make public drug use a misdemeanor in the city. The measure received tentative council approval March 27 in a 5–2 vote, with a final vote expected on April 10.

Two weeks earlier, on March 13, council refused to vote on the ordinance, saying they needed more information about how it would be implemented.

“We all dug in and listened to the stories of people who work downtown,” Hammill said. “In doing so, we then made a decision to support the mayor’s ordinance to make it illegal to publicly use controlled substances.”

Before making a final decision on the ordinance on April 10, council will hear more from city staff about the capacity of existing programs to support people who are addicted to drugs, rather than booking them into jail.

“Incarceration is the last resort of this ordinance,” Hammill said. “That was made abundantly clear by the police chief and the (mayor’s) administration and the council.”

Council member Skip Williams said he recently spoke with downtown business representatives who described shoplifting, stolen tip jars and assaults on employees. He said those conversations also swayed him to vote for the drug-use ordinance on March 27.

“I think what really turned the tide on a lot of our thinking — I would say my thinking — was me talking to the business owners and really getting a firsthand view of what life was like down there,” Williams said.

Council member Hollie Huthman also said recent conversations with business owners went into her “information gathering” before her vote to approve the drug-use ordinance. 

Business owners lauded the council’s decision, adding they would remain vigilant over the upcoming April 10 vote.

“It’s not like this one thing is going to solve all the problems,” Green said, “but for myself and for all of the businesses downtown, we need to do something quickly. And this is a step in the right direction.”

Mayor Fleetwood said he intends to expand on initiatives begun in 2022, including downtown ambassadors, a security team and graffiti removal. A mayor’s downtown solutions workgroup to include business leaders will begin meeting soon, Fleetwood said.

“Challenges on numerous fronts have proliferated since the pandemic that are well known,” Fleetwood said in a prepared statement. “We continue to be concerned, responsive and hopeful.”

Peter Frazier, co-owner of Hotel Leo and Heliotrope Hotel downtown, said business owners have already been meeting for weeks to develop solutions to downtown’s problems.

Frazier, who is working on a campaign that would support a possible jail bond measure later this year, said solutions downtown need to be developed with an eye to helping people on the streets who are in crisis.

“I think we’re all seeing the problems, and we’re all looking for good solutions that take into account best practices in behavioral health and criminal justice,” Frazier said.

Huthman, who is a downtown business owner as well as a city council member, echoed the sentiment that solutions can be reached if all interested parties work on them together.

“One of the things I love about Bellingham is … when we all get together and have conversations to come up with constructive solutions, we do,” she said.

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