In yet another sign of COVID-19’s mounting economic costs, the Columbia Sportswear store has joined the list of businesses that won’t reopen in downtown Seattle after the pandemic.
Portland-based Columbia Sportswear hasn’t publicly commented on the fate of the store, at Third Avenue and Pine Street, which was looted during the May 30 protests and is currently boarded up.
But three company employees confirmed that the store, which opened in 2008, is now permanently closed. They said the decision was driven by losses from the pandemic and concerns over downtown’s economic recovery, but also broader business challenges in downtown, including shoplifting and street crime.
“There were multiple issues,” including “the hardships of working downtown,” said a Columbia Sportswear employee who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
Columbia Sportswear’s departure is the latest in a series of high-profile closures in a part of the city that has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Since March, 126 street-level downtown business locations have closed, according to Downtown Seattle Association (DSA).
In May, the 57-year-old Cinerama movie house announced it was shutting down “for the foreseeable future.” The Kress IGA supermarket, which had been at Third and Pike since 2008, shut down in August. Bergman Luggage, a downtown icon at Third and Stewart for more than 30 years, closed in early September. Baby & Company, a clothing boutique founded at First Avenue and Virginia Street 44 years ago, will close at the end of September.
Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the DSA, blamed many of the closures on the pandemic, which has largely emptied downtown of tourists and office workers, as well as the uncertainty over when COVID-related business restrictions would be lifted.
Many businesses were also hit hard by the end of federal pandemic relief programs, notably the Paycheck Protection Program loans that had kept many smaller shops, restaurants and other businesses afloat during an otherwise lean summer.
Businesses “face a ton of uncertainty” over prospects for a new federal stimulus package and a timeline for the easing of public health restrictions that would let businesses operate at fuller capacity, Scholes said.
Longer term, Scholes said, businesses have no firm idea when, or how many, office employees working from home will return to downtown offices, which could at least partly offset pandemic losses. “Conventions, big events, business travel — those are not going to resume anytime soon, for the most part,” Scholes said. “So the real variable is, do we get a few more folks working in their offices, a few days a week, at least.”
But business owners warned that downtown was facing economic challenges before the pandemic. These included costly rent, sharpening competition from e-commerce and suburban malls and a growing problem with homelessness and street crime.
Before the pandemic, at least “there were other customers, too,” said Amir Yousuf, whose International Cigar and Tobacco, on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine streets, was heavily damaged during the May 30 looting. “Now, the people on the street are the only ones left.”
Some business owners said the pandemic was the final straw after years of challenges that ranged from ongoing construction to commercial rents that were already too high, especially for smaller shops.
City officials and landlords have “failed to understand what small businesses were experiencing,” wrote Jill and Wayne Donnelly, the owners of Baby & Company, in a late August email to customers.
Among those challenges, the Donnellys noted, were “over six years dealing with the continuous construction disruption dominating the inner city, closed streets, traffic overload, the removal of a major highway, the building of a major tunnel, rebuilding the waterfront, a homelessness epidemic, an addiction epidemic, a mental health epidemic, a drug-dealing epidemic, a theft epidemic.”
Many of the people on the street “have real issues — mental issues, drug abuse,” said Henok Bereket, 26, who works as a security guard at a downtown retailer. “It’s pretty scary.”
Such concerns are at least partly borne out by police statistics.
While violent crime is largely down this year in the downtown commercial district, Belltown, Capitol Hill, Chinatown-International District and Sodo compared to 2019 and 2018, some property crimes are up.
As of August, those five neighborhoods had already reported slightly more burglaries — 1,232 — than in all of 2019 or 2018. Arsons in those neighborhoods were also on pace to beat those two years by around 40%.
Concerns about crime and homelessness have been a major source of tension between downtown businesses and City Hall. In the past, some business owners have said police and the courts do little to stop smaller crimes such as shoplifting or trespassing.
Those tensions have risen during the pandemic, in part as the city has debated cuts to the Police Department in the wake of protests against police killings and injustices toward communities of color.
Earlier this month, the DSA and several neighborhood groups planned to deliver petitions to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council, signed by small businesses, demanding that city officials pledge to keep small businesses safe.
The combination of political and economic uncertainty weighs heavily on many businesses as they decide whether to hold out during the pandemic or cut their losses and shut their doors for good.
Hardial Gill chose the latter. The owner of Bergman Luggage said he could have weathered the pandemic financially. His downtown location has always been profitable, even during the Great Recession, and his landlord had been understanding during the pandemic.
But Gill decided to close anyway after the store, which he bought in 2002, was hit by looters, multiple burglaries, and what often seems like a permanent contingent of “homeless people camped around our store.”
“My guys are scared to go down there,” said Gill, who says his other regional shops in Bellevue, at Southcenter mall and in Tacoma are still doing comparatively well.
The downtown location was Gill’s “flagship store,” he said. “And when you have to close your flagship store, it hurts.”