City of SeaTac delivers blow to 50+ immigrant small business owners
By Gwen Davis
Last night, SeaTac city council members dealt a blow to more than 50 immigrant small business owners, who will most likely be displaced or forced to close shop. In a drawn-out, late-night city council session, members voted 5-1 to sell the city-owned SeaTac Center to the private developer, Inland Group. Before the vote, dozens of SeaTac residents -- affected business owners, family members, friends, school teachers and activists -- delivered passionate testimony to the council, imploring them to consider that the move will be devastating to their largely Somali, immigrant community. But the testimony fell on deaf ears -- the only member to vote no was Councilmember Rick Forschler.
"The vote was very painful," said Takele Gobena of the SeaTac Community Coalition, a group of around 60 immigrant business owners that had sought for months to fight the selling of the SeaTac Center. "The message from that vote is that the city council doesn't appreciate small business and doesn't believe in the American Dream. They simply don't care about this community."
Gobena said that the impact of selling the building will be profound. Each of the more than 50 immigrant-owned businesses in the center -- which sell East African products from food to furniture to decor -- has one or two subtenants. The majority of all tenants are Somali women, who moved to this country 10 to 15 years ago, and had to work three or four jobs just to be able to start their business. With the income generated, tenants are able to both support their families at home, and send money to family who had to remain in East Africa. They're able to afford the rent in SeaTac, send their kids to the Highline School District and contribute to the local economy.
But Gobena said that the purchase of SeaTac Center will force them to permanently close.
"It took them over 10 years to build the businesses -- if they're forced out of the building, it'll be hard for them to start from scratch," he said. "We all know how expensive the rent is in Seattle."
Additionally, even if some of them try to relocate, one of the main reasons why their current businesses are successful is because they're working in their Somali community and are able to sell merchandise to their fellow Somalians. If they move shop to elsewhere in the city, their products won't have the same demand.
"Most of them are going to end up being out of business forever," Gobena said.
Inland Group said in previous sessions that they are willing to work with the business owners. However, they are not required to make any accommodations, and most likely will not (from a historical perspective).
Gobena scoffed at Councilmember Peter Kwon's last-minute suggestion that business owners try to move to the new Forterra development that is planning to open nearby.
"First of all, it wasn't clear how many people that building will hold," Gobena said. Additionally, the costs associated with moving and renting new space would most likely make it prohibitive. "[Kwon asked about that option] yesterday right before the vote, making it clear he didn't even know how many business owners there are in SeaTac Center. It was very hard to hear that. The council is making decisions that will impact people for years and years -- hundreds and hundreds of community members."
Council members voiced reasons for voting to sell the property
Kwon said there's not enough "developable" land in SeaTac, so the council is obligated to squeeze in all the commercial developments they can.
"SeaTac the city, has 10 square miles, really five square miles of developable land," he said. "Most of the city is already developed... Land is at a premium. It's very important that the city move forward when something comes in."
Councilmember Pam Fernald indicated that she can't be bothered with the small business owners because she represents "the entire city".
"I hate the phrase 'no brainer', but I think it makes sense at this time in the city's life to move forward with negotiations," she said. "We represent the whole entire city, not just one little section. There's always special interest groups, whether they're businesses or whether they're community groups or whatever. Everybody has their own thing. But we have to think about the entire city."
Councilmember Clyde Hill claimed that the city "doesn't make a good landlord" and that the building was built in 1954 and "is going to continue needing more and more financial care."
Hill also said that the business owners would have more than one year to vacate the building. "I don't know how much more time you need than one year," he said.
Councilmember Joel Wachtel said that the building should be sold because the process was started years ago by former councils. "I tend to get on a train and ride it to where I'm going, and don't stop in the middle and say, 'I don't want to go there anymore,'" he said. "That's what this [vote] feels like to me."
Councilmember Erin Sitterley said that selling the building is worthwhile because it will look "new", and wished her own house would be redeveloped so it would look new, too.
"The great thing about the Inland proposal is it will all be livable and nice and new," she said. "I live in a little, old house and often times I look at neighbors who have brand new countertops and say, 'wow, it would be so easy to clean those countertops because they don't have seams and bubbles and weirdness in it," she said. "I don't know why I don't redevelop my own piece of property."
She further said that immigrant business owners shouldn't be afraid about displacement because "displacement by design is not supposed to be permanent."
Councilmember Rick Forschler was the only one to vote no. "This can be a win-win for everyone," he said, acknowledging the Somalian community. He compared the SeaTac Center to the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue -- how keeping the Bellevue center internationally-focused played well for the city, and now generates $58 million a year. "I don't know how we ever went hornswoggled into believing we can't have an international center here. That is sincerely taking into consideration the economic benefits of everyone in the city, not just a small set of citizens."
The City of SeaTac is one of the most diverse cities in the state. Approximately 62 percent of the people in SeaTac are people of color, with representation of more than 80 nationalities and 70 different languages. Meanwhile, every SeaTac city council member, with the exception of Peter Kwon, is white. Going forward, groups such as SeaTac Community Coalition are energized to replace the white council members with people who are more representative of the community.
Takele Gobena is currently running for the SeaTac City Council, Position 5 appointment. (The position opened when Mayor Michael Siefkes stepped down from the council earlier this month.)
Given the large number of immigrant business owners that seem to be united, why don't they form a Co-Op and get their own building somewhere?
The City of Sea-Tac should build a Parking Garage charge $20.00 a day for the Airport Parking with some of the surplus land & maintain it. The POS parking garage is full 24/7. The home owners from Sea-Tac will never pay property taxes again. Watch how fast the money will return to the City of Sea-Tac. Also there employee lot is full 24/7. They are looking for other places to build an employee lot. If you have the land I am sure they will rent or lease it from you...…
Please be advised that the vacancy of Position 5 is an appointment to a temporary position, as opposed election, and as such the is no public vote on the matter and no reason for a campaign. The position will be filled be a vote of the City Council, so only 6 votes will be cast.
Wow is the Westside paper a tad biased? This is such a ridiculous article. All the council members remarks are taken out of context. This is NOT how the meeting went, I was there. And the large majority of the citizens of SeaTac agree with the council. By the way, if you own a piece of property you may do what ever you want to with it. Why is that so difficult to understand for some?