Can downtown Seattle bounce back? Community leaders discuss how city can rebound after COVID

Panelists at GeekWire’s Civic Conversations event Thursday, clockwise from top left: Gordon McHenry Jr., United Way King County CEO; Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former Governor of Washington State; Kris Hermanns, Chief Impact Officer at the Seattle Foundation; and presenter Monica Nickelsburg, editor at GeekWire. (GeekWire photo)

Even if the pandemic slows, a major unanswered question is whether everyone will be comfortable visiting or working in downtown Seattle.

The downtown core has suffered since last March when offices were emptied in favor of remote working. Thousands of employees who have traveled to the urban core of the city on a daily basis no longer visit the local shops, restaurants and bars. Downtown tech companies like the Zillow Group allow employees to work from home indefinitely and implement a distributed workforce model.

For cities to be alive, they need a downtown population where small businesses are frequented daily by workers, said former Washington governor Chris Gregoire. She was optimistic about employees who want to return to a physical office.

“We have a younger generation … who want to be in a vibrant city,” she said. “They want to share in the collegiality that they can find in their work area.”

Gregoire attended a GeekWire virtual event on Thursday called Civic Conversations: Addressing the Public Order Challenges During a COVID Economy. She was joined by Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way King County, and Kris Hermanns, Chief Impact Officer of the Seattle Foundation.

In its February 2021 Downtown State Economic Report, the Downtown Seattle Association said downtown lost 45,000 jobs in the second quarter of 2020 and ended the year with around 20,000 fewer jobs compared to the first quarter.

As of early 2020, Seattle has reported 265 permanent street-level business locations, including 183 in downtown.

Downtown is struggling with public safety issues, homelessness, and more, both before and during the pandemic. And Gregoire, CEO of the Challenge Seattle alliance, said it wasn’t a welcome place for Black. Indigenous and colored people.

“We need to be an inclusive, open and welcoming community in general,” said Gregoire. “Part of our private sector is thriving. It’s not too much of it. Our small businesses, our women-owned businesses, and our minority-owned businesses do not thrive. And they are a kind of culture, the spirit, the heart of a community. “

She added, “We need to have the welcome mat off. We can’t afford to freeze in Seattle, ”a term refers to how locals can supposedly be a little frosty for newcomers.

The chronic homelessness crisis and security issues are a major concern of employers and workers, who mainly work in the inner city. The panel agreed that more needs to be done to address key issues of the crisis such as mental and behavioral health and crisis intervention.

“We didn’t get beyond tents,” said McHenry.

And Hermanns added that corporations, elected leaders and officials who made tough decisions on key policy issues during the pandemic need the same courage to tackle homelessness.

Other important topics from the discussion were:

  • Vaccinations: As companies make plans to return to the offices, Gregoire was asked if large employers should need COVID-19 vaccinations. She said members of Challenge Seattle, including executives from Microsoft, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Boeing, and others, said they didn’t need it but “absolutely encourage” it. Gregoire said employers like the University of Washington and Fred Hutch put science, facts and data before local people and resources, who communicate the truth like no other.
  • Equity: The pandemic exacerbated many of the societal problems that existed before it began, such as: B. Issues of equity, affordability, racial segregation and access to health care and housing. McHenry said it was important, as we come out of the crisis, to “lock in” some of the innovation and protection of essential services launched last year so that we have a “stronger, more inclusive and supported community”.

More information about today’s event can be found later on GeekWire.

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