‘We can’t afford a Seattle freeze’: Community leaders discuss how city can rebound after COVID

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Panelists from GeekWire’s Civic Conversations event on Thursday, clockwise from top left: Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way King County; Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former Washington state governor; Kris Hermanns, chief impact officer at Seattle Foundation; and moderator Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire contributing editor. (GeekWire Photo)

Even as the pandemic slows, one key unanswered question is whether everyone will feel good about visiting or working in downtown Seattle.

Since last March, the downtown core has suffered as offices emptied in favor of remote work. Thousands of employees who traveled into the city’s urban core daily are no longer frequenting the local shops, restaurants, and bars. Tech companies headquartered downtown such as Zillow Group are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely and implementing a distributed workforce model.

For cities to be vibrant, they need a downtown population, with small businesses being visited by workers on a daily basis, said former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. She expressed optimism about employees wanting to return to a physical office.

“We have a younger generation … that wants to be in a vibrant city,” she said. “They want to partake of the collegiality that they can find in their workspace.”

Gregoire took part Thursday in a GeekWire virtual event called Civic Conversations: Tackling Public Policy Challenges During a COVID Economy. She was joined by Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way King County, and Kris Hermanns, chief impact officer at Seattle Foundation.

The downtown area has struggled with public safety issues, homelessness and more — before and during the pandemic. And Gregoire, CEO of the Challenge Seattle alliance, said it has not been a welcome place for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“We have to be an inclusive, open, welcoming community at large,” Gregoire said. “Some of our private sector is thriving. Too much of it is not. Our small businesses, our women-owned, our minority-owned businesses are not thriving. And they’re kind of the culture, the spirit, the heart of a community.”

She added: “We have to have the welcome mat out. We can’t afford a Seattle freeze,” referencing a term related to how locals can supposedly be a little frosty to newcomers.

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

It also reported 265 permanent street-level business locations in Seattle since the start of 2020, including 183 downtown. 

The chronic homelessness crisis and safety issues are leading concerns among employers and employees who work downtown especially. The panel agreed that more needs to be done in terms of addressing the core issues of the crisis such as mental and behavioral health and crisis intervention.

“We haven’t gotten beyond tents,” McHenry said.

And Hermanns added that businesses, elected leaders and officials who have made hard decisions during the pandemic around key policy issues need that same courage in addressing homelessness.

Other topics of note from the discussion included:

  • Vaccines: As companies begin to make plans to return to offices, even under a hybrid model, Gregoire was asked whether big employers should require COVID-19 vaccinations. She said that members of Challenge Seattle, including leaders from Microsoft, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Boeing and elsewhere said they will not require but will “absolutely encourage.” Gregoire said employers put science, facts and data in front of employees and resources in the region such as the University of Washington and Fred Hutch communicate the truth like few other places.
  • Equity: The pandemic exacerbated many of the societal problems that existed before it started, such as issues around equity, affordability, racial division and access to health care and housing. McHenry said it’s important as we come out of the crisis to “lock in” some of the innovation and protection of essential services that have been instituted over the past year so that we have a “stronger, more inclusive and supported community.”

Stay tuned for more from today’s event later on GeekWire.

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