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Patty Murray tours Bellingham businesses, future Whatcom child care site

Owners tell senator relief funds helped retain workers and 'saved us'

Sen. Patty Murray looks at pinball machines at The Racket on Monday
Sen. Patty Murray looks at pinball machines at The Racket on Monday
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Dressed in her trademark jeans and tennis shoes, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray took a walking tour of downtown Bellingham businesses Monday to learn firsthand how they survived the COVID-19 pandemic.

The senator received thank-you’s at each stop, from the owners of Jalapeños Restaurants, Wild Buffalo House of Music and The Shakedown.

Jesse Cantu, president and CEO of Jalapeños Restaurants, told Murray that federal funds enabled him to retain more than 95% of his employees despite COVID-19 lockdowns. He also purchased three minivans to offer delivery, after dine-in service was halted.

Jalapeños even opened a fifth restaurant, on Meridian Street, during the height of the pandemic. (In addition to three other Jalapeños locations, in Fairhaven, Barkley Village and downtown, the company operates Luna’s Bistro near the Barkley movie theaters.)

photo  Sen. Patty Murray walks up Holly Street in front of Penny Lane Antique Mall. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“We never missed a paycheck during the pandemic,” Cantu said, as he showed Murray around his downtown restaurant. “It was a blessing and a miracle for all of us.”

Jalapeños Restaurants received $161,701 in American Rescue Plan Act funds through the state Commerce Department, according to Sen. Murray’s office. Wild Buffalo received $80,351 in Commerce grants, along with a Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Operators Grant — a program Murray helped to shape as part of the ARPA bill.

“It absolutely saved us,” Wild Buffalo co-owner Craig Jewell told Murray during a tour of his live-music venue on West Holly Street. The club was closed for the better part of two years, but business has since returned to pre-pandemic levels, Jewell said.

Hollie Huthman, owner of The Shakedown and The Racket, a bar and pinball establishment next door to her music venue, told Murray she tried takeout service during the lockdowns but only took in 8% of pre-pandemic revenues.

photo  Luna Cantu, center, shakes hands with Sen. Patty Murray at Jalapeños in downtown Bellingham. Her grandfather Jesse Cantu, left, owns the local Mexican restaurant. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“With the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) we could at least pay employees, and that was about it, really,” Huthman said.

The Shakedown received $50,254 in ARPA funds through the Commerce Department, according to Murray’s office.

Murray spoke to the media briefly at the end of the tour.

“We often pass big bills in Congress, and you wonder what happens in the local communities,” Murray said. “These are people who actually got those dollars and paid their employees, kept their venues or their restaurants open — and it made a difference.”

Murray’s downtown Bellingham appearance was part of a full schedule Monday that included tours of Lone Tree Point outside La Conner and a broadband project east of Nooksack. She finished her tour of Whatcom County with a stop at the Meridian School District to discuss the planned Whatcom Early Learning Center. 


Part-owner of the Wild Buffalo, Craig Jewell, left, speaks with Sen. Patty Murray and Mike Fong, director of the Washington State Department of Commerce.

(Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Murray, drafted legislation that would provide $4 million in funding for the Meridian child care center for fiscal year 2024 if passed by the Senate. The center is slated to be built next to Meridian High School and is being designed concurrently with the proposed skill center. 

Whatcom County has already committed $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, and Superintendent James Everett said they have submitted a proposal to have the center built and operating by fall 2026. They are also hoping for additional funding from the state. 

The district views the center as “a vital solution” to the child care desert in Whatcom County. The district said it will increase access for between 80 and 120 children from birth to preschool. As of earlier this year, Whatcom County had a 5,000-slot deficit, leaving dozens of families in flux.  

photo  A sign on the projector of the Wild Buffalo thanks Sen. Patty Murray for her support during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Beyond just providing more child care opportunities, the center would allow regional junior and senior students to get hands-on experience working with young children through an Early Childhood Education program. Additionally, students who are parents would have accessible child care, allowing them to continue pursuing their own education.

Murray, a former preschool teacher and former chair of the education committee, discussed the multiple layers of benefits coming from Meridian’s future early learning center. 

“This is exactly what we need to be doing,” Murray said. “We need child care available for people to go to work. We need to train people to be child care providers, and we have to have facilities that are accessible to people in their own communities.” 

photo  From left, Superintendent James Everett, Sen. Patty Murray, Lynette Brower from the Northwest Career and Technical Academy and Rep. Joe Timmons tour Monday, Aug. 8 the proposed site for the Whatcom Early Learning Center next to Meridian High School. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

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