Best and worst of all, we absolutely love the urban vibe but hate the anticipated encounters with ne’er-do-wells and homeless campers that keep some of us from going there.
You’re probably thinking: Oh, yeah; he’s talking about my downtown: Puyallup or Sumner or Federal Way or Auburn or Seattle or Tacoma or ….
You’re right. But for the best example, however, see downtown Olympia. The Pumpkin Patrol sees it every night.
Kyle Nicolas, 35, slipped on his bright orange Olympia Downtown Alliance polo one sunny evening in September, as he usually does for his rounds as a Downtown Guide. And because he’s a big guy, the street regulars he steers toward community services, talks to, gives a bottle of water to, or hands a granola bar to have dubbed him “The Pumpkin Patrol.”
Nicolas smiles big at the nickname.
“Love it,” he says. “I’ve only been walking around here since July, and I’ve already lost 20 pounds.” But the biggest benefit has come to downtown itself.
“I see it. I’m encouraged,” said Dean Jones, who owns Encore Chocolates & Teas on Fifth Avenue. You can trust Jones’ perspective. Off and on since 1984, Jones has owned a retail shop of some kind downtown. Today, he is one of about two dozen downtown shop owners, landlords, or organizations in an 11-block swath that have voluntarily chipped in to fund ODA’s Downtown Guide program.
Nicolas’ shift ends about 11 p.m. He helps evening visitors with directions and tips and kindly reminds the street folks they can’t sleep in doorways and overhangs of the places that pay for the Downtown Guide program. And they listen, as I saw while making the rounds with him.
Jones, so bullish now on downtown’s prospects, recently doubled the size of his shop. “I signed a 10-year lease, and I’ll be 86 when that expires, so that tells you something,” Jones said. Last winter, Jones, you, and I might not have had this same sense of optimism.
The Alliance hired Pacific Coast Security — the same outfit that provides security to downtown Tacoma — for a “security patrol” that misfired. In well-chronicled troubles, protesters who perceived the security patrol as harassers of the homeless repeatedly followed, chased, surrounded, and threatened the patrols. The security company quit, and the Alliance regrouped with the guide approach — and Nicolas, who trained in conflict resolution at UC Berkeley.
“The fact I get to do homeless outreach in the neighborhood where I live is amazing,” said Nicolas, who also walks to work. “I have a lot of compassion for the locals.” He stops to shake hands with two middle-aged homeless men in wheelchairs, taking in the evening sun and smoking. The nickname Pumpkin Patrol comes up with some laughs.
“We do what we can,” Nicolas said. “Sure, when you see an elderly woman lying on the sidewalk who can’t help herself, that’s heartbreaking. At the same time, those times I help get someone connected with resources that gets them off the street … I love this.”
So, now what? Todd Cutts, executive director of the Alliance, has burned through a lot of shoe leather pitching property owners and City Hall on the value of a self-assessment district, paid into by the property owners, that would raise an estimated $6 million over 10 years to expand the scope and territory of the Downtown Guides, plus expand events to bring more of us back to downtown. Tacoma’s Business Improvement Area version has repaid dividends many times over. It will for Olympia, too, when Cutts can get 60 percent property-owner support and a required vote from the City Council.
Now, between the City of Olympia’s homeless mitigation encampment and resource connections on the fringe of downtown, a host of new community-outreach endeavors that include new beds coming on line for those who need mental health assistance, a lot of players are making downtown Olympia a place where you can expect to again enjoy that urban vibe.
On the love-hate scale, Olympia’s clearly trending toward love.