When meeting planner Windy Christner visited downtown Seattle in April 2018, she was shocked at what she saw.
During her three-day visit, she witnessed two men urinating, one man who had defecated on himself and an addict passed out on the sidewalk. Once, Christner crossed the street to escape someone shouting profanities. Another man aggressively pursued a member of Christner’s team, asking for cash.
Christner, senior director of meetings and expositions for the American Pharmacists Association, was scouting Seattle in advance of the group’s March 2019 annual meeting. She left the city feeling disturbed and uneasy about the safety of the 6,000 meeting attendees.
STREET STRIFE. Downtown Seattle’s growing tourism business is threatened by the city’s vexing homelessness woes and growing street-crime problem.
“I am empathetic for the plight of those in need, and realize that Seattle is by no means alone,” Christner wrote in a letter to Visit Seattle President and CEO Tom Norwalk after her visit. “However, the safety and security of the APhA attendee is my first priority, and I am extremely concerned.”
The increasing prevalence of crime, drugs and homelessness in the downtown core threatens the city’s thriving tourism and convention business, and worries retailers concerned that the city isn’t doing nearly enough to combat the crisis. Downtown crime is increasing at an alarming rate: City of Seattle crime data for downtown Seattle indicate a jump in “person crimes” (aggravated assault, robbery, rape and homicide) of 43 percent between 2016 and 2018. In the downtown commercial district, there was a total of 568 person crimes in 2018, up from 397 in 2016, Seattle Police Department records show.
At the same time, the city has seen nine consecutive years of growth in the tourism sector, and last year brought a record 40.9 million visitors who spent $7.8 billion. Last year also set a record for convention business: The Washington State Convention Center hosted 50 national conventions totaling more than 704,000 room nights. The economic impact was valued at $715 million. Seven new hotels opened downtown last year, including the Hyatt Regency, the largest in the Pacific Northwest.
More business is coming. The $1.7 billion convention center expansion broke ground last August and is slated for completion in 2022.
“The industry growth has been unprecedented,” Norwalk says. “It’s such a dichotomy of downtown safety problems alongside the growth, success and global recognition for our city.”
SOCIAL DISORDER. Visit Seattle’s Tom Norwalk says the city is “way past the tipping point” when it comes to downtown street crime.
Seattle and King County now rank No. 3 in the nation for the largest number of homeless with more than 12,000, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The area around Third Avenue and Pike Street has been known as an open-air drug market for decades, and the rising opioid and methamphetamine crises have contributed to the block’s problems in recent years.
Shoplifting buy-and-sell rings in the neighborhood are evident to anyone walking by, says Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes. Many who work, live and visit downtown Seattle complain that the streets feel gritty and drug addiction is on constant display.
“It has spiraled out of control,” Norwalk says.
Business has already been lost. In July 2016, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners was considering Seattle for its 2022 convention with 1,800 attendees. Meeting planners decided to go to Long Beach instead, citing the Seattle street scene as a major factor.
Whereas convention planners used to primarily focus on price, facilities and attractiveness when shopping for a site, safety has now risen as the top discussion point in Seattle, Norwalk says.
“Safety and social issues in the city have risen to be something we talk about like never before,” Norwalk adds.
Seattle isn’t alone: The issue is something convention markets across the country are dealing with. An August 2018 survey by the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convene Magazine found that 42 percent of meeting professionals said they rejected a convention site because of homelessness problems. At Global Meeting Industry Day in April, Christner and other meeting planners from around the country held a panel to discuss homelessness and addiction and related safety issues.
When conventions do select Seattle, tourism and convention groups feel increasingly concerned that their experience won’t be entirely positive. The worst-case scenario is when someone gets hurt. In January, a mentally ill woman verbally harassed and punched a woman attending the American Library Association meeting. The suspect was arrested, taken to jail and released two days later due to mental incompetency. The next day, she assaulted someone else downtown. She was held for three weeks, and then released onto the streets again.
“We hold our breath when we have visitors and say we hope that everything will be OK,” Norwalk says.
Christner and the American Pharmacists Association went ahead with their convention this March after working with Visit Seattle, the Seattle Police Department and the Downtown Seattle Association’s Safety Ambassadors to add safety patrols near the meeting site. Christner walked the downtown blocks early each morning of the convention, asking Safety Ambassadors to wake up sleeping homeless people before the day began. She did not receive any reports from attendees who felt harassed or unsafe and believes her additional safety requests made a difference.
Downtown hotels and restaurants are often the first to hear when visitors have negative experiences. Guests leave comment cards and post on social media about street safety and unsightliness. The most common comment, Norwalk says, is that people are shocked that Seattle has so much homelessness and street drug use. Many visitors are coming here for the first time, and they wonder how a city so progressive and wealthy can allow these issues to happen.
“The word often used is ‘gritty,’” Norwalk notes. “The open drug use, the stench of urine in the alleys, the tent encampments on the waterfront. There’s a feeling that it’s gone wild.”
Norwalk worries more about the people who visit and don’t comment, but instead tell their friends and family about the problems in Seattle. Those silent guests represent future lost business for the city.
The safety problems also have financial repercussions for retailers, which struggle with theft on a daily basis. Seattle-based Bartell Drugs’ downtown stores are frequented by addicts stealing wine, homeless people stealing food and individuals paid by organized crime groups who come in with a list of items to steal, CEO Kathi Lentzsch says.
“Shoplifting is a daily event in our stores,” Lentzsch says.
GRITTY SEATTLE. Many visitors wonder why a city as progressive and wealthy as Seattle can’t get a better handle on homelessness and street drug use, downtown business leaders say.
Lentzsch worries about both the financial impact of the constant theft and the safety of her employees. When staff members have asked a shoplifter to take an item to the register and pay for it, they’ve been punched in the face. In one recent case, a woman attacked an employee for no apparent reason, and it took three police officers to get handcuffs on her. Another man started to tear the shelves apart and throw goods all over the store.
“It’s a punch in the gut every time I come to the office and see an email saying that someone was assaulted,” Lentzsch says.
Bartell Drugs identified at least nine of its stores as having serious enough crime problems to warrant armed officers but could only afford to staff guards at two of them. The officers at the Third and Union and Fourth and Jackson stores cost between $300,000 and $360,000 a year.
“We couldn’t believe how expensive it is,” Lentzsch says. “We couldn’t do it in most stores because it would wipe out our profits.”
Lentzsch announced this spring that the chain would open no more stores in downtown Seattle until safety conditions improve. Bartell tried to pull out of an existing lease for a Belltown store but could not, and will open that store this year with an armed guard and cameras.
Hospitality businesses along the Seattle waterfront also frequently encounter homeless camps and addicts. Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants, says he and other business leaders walk the waterfront several times a day, taking pictures of people camping or shooting up, then sending those images to the Seattle Police Department. The waterfront businesses also employ off-duty police officers during summer months to improve visitor safety.
“Without a doubt, it’s an issue,” Donegan says. “We are in the hospitality business and want visitors to have a good experience. When they’re seeing needles on the sidewalk, or stepping over feces, or smelling urine in the alleys, that’s not attractive.”
The Downtown Seattle Association and Visit Seattle hired attorney and public policy consultant Scott Lindsay to study 100 of the city’s most prolific offenders. In the report, released in February, Lindsay found that the same people commit the same crimes over and over again in the downtown core, with little consequence.
“We have not had an answer for this really difficult, complicated part of the population,” says Downtown Seattle Association’s Scholes. “The criminal justice system has not been accountable.”
Lindsay found that all of the offenders in this group were currently or recently homeless, all were dealing with substance abuse problems and 40 percent showed signs of mental health issues. This group is just a sample of the larger population of prolific offenders in Seattle, which Lindsay estimates at around 800 to 1,200.
The individuals continually reoffend because they are quickly released back into the streets. Those with mental health conditions are typically found not competent to stand trial. When the prolific offenders are given court-ordered conditions, such as appearing for court dates or not committing further law violations, they fail to comply. It takes on average six months for the Seattle City Attorney’s office to file theft cases, meaning individuals often continue to steal from the same stores every day.
Many of these prolific offenders regularly evade jail booking by claiming they are injured or have swallowed heroin so that they will be transported to Harborview. Since officers would have to wait several hours to accompany the suspect to jail, they are often forced to release the individuals at the hospital instead.
In the first two months after the report was released, 66 of the prolific offenders in the sample group had already committed another crime.
Visit Seattle and the Downtown Seattle Association hope the survey will spur the city to act. Norwalk believes hospitality and business leaders need to be vocal and relay visitors’ concerns and negative experiences to the city. He sent Christner’s letter to both the Mayor’s Office and the Seattle City Council, and said it received “minimal attention.”
“We are looking for strong leadership from the mayor,” Norwalk says. “How are we going to police and hold people accountable?”
The mayor’s office did not grant requests for an interview for this story. In a statement, the office said Mayor Jenny Durkan has been meeting with County Executive Dow Constantine, City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to discuss new strategies to deal with addicts, the mentally ill and the homeless. Durkan wants to formalize the working group and add representatives from Public Health Seattle-King County, municipal and superior courts, the public defender’s association, the city’s Human Services Department, a member from both the city and King County councils, case managers and health care workers.
“[Durkan] believes that it’s abundantly clear that our residents and businesses are expecting us to engage in a more coordinated effort,” the statement says.
Some business leaders believe private dollars are needed. Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire and Vine Hospitality, co-founded Third Door Coalition last year to address homelessness. The group is comprised of researchers, business leaders and service providers, and is developing a plan to fund permanent long-term housing with social support services for the chronic homeless, who tend to have mental health and substance abuse problems. Third Door Coalition leaders want to finance the housing with private business donations and government matching funds.
As both an entrepreneur and resident, Mackay says he wanted to act after witnessing Seattle’s struggles. The street problems affect business at one of his restaurants, El Gaucho, as out-of-town and regional diners increasingly see downtown as an unattractive place to visit, Mackay adds.
“All the suburban people decide to dine elsewhere,” Mackay says. “They don’t want to deal with the street stain. It’s sad.”
On a personal level, Mackay was spurred to act after hearing daily commute stories from his two sons, ages 11 and 14, who ride their bikes to school from Capitol Hill to Queen Anne along the Burke Gilman trail. They told their father about seeing drug addicts shooting up and fires being set on the trail. One day, Mackay found them at home playing “homeless camp” with pillows and blankets.
Mackay decided it was time to stop talking about the problems and do something about them.
“I love this city and I don’t want to give up on it,” Mackay says.
Convention planners are beginning to take a proactive role to address street safety issues as well. After Christner’s site visit last spring, the American Pharmacists Association decided to gather donations for Seattle homeless shelter Mary’s Place. Meeting planners encouraged cash and goods donations during the convention by offering prizes such as suite upgrades or free meeting admission for next year’s conference. Some exhibitors also donated money and gave leftover products, such as granola bars, to Mary’s Place.
Whether any social or political efforts can begin to fix Seattle’s streets remains to be seen, but the city’s hospitality boosters believe that action is long overdue.
Norwalk recalls an email sent by former Seattle City Council Member Tim Burgess to his colleagues back in 2009. Burgess expressed concern over the social disorder on downtown streets, and said the city needed to take proactive measures or it would reach a tipping point it would regret.
“Virtually nothing has happened, and instead, it’s gotten worse,” Norwalk says. “We are way past the tipping point. Our job is to bring the world to Seattle, and if we can’t get a handle on these issues, it’s going to hurt us.”