Solutions to Help Small Businesses are a Start

But if your favorite old dive bar is currently struggling, well, drink up
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Shocking news that the famous Carnegie Deli is closing in New York. In the late 1990s, when the Village Voice bought Seattle Weekly, my new boss, publisher David Schneiderman, took me to the Carnegie on the (accurate) assumption that a guy from Seattle named “Knute” had never had a real pastrami sandwich. I was polite enough not to ask for mayonnaise on mine.

Schneiderman asked that I reciprocate my taking him to an emblematic Seattle eatery, and instead of Canlis I countered with the Twin Teepees on Aurora at Green Lake. It was a classic, funky diner in the shape of, well, twin teepees. Col. Sanders reportedly developed his later famous Kentucky fried chicken recipe there. It was a travesty of Native American art and appropriation, but they had an awesome ‘60s central fireplace in the dining room, great Bloody Marys and tapioca pudding was on the dessert menu. Schneiderman loved the pudding and bought a Teepees hat and never forgot his one-of-a-kind, not-in-New-York dining experience.

Not long after, the restaurant was damaged by fire and demolished before anyone could move to landmark it. The sudden death of the Teepees and the shocking closure of Carnegie are a reminder that businesses that become treasured local institutions can vanish in the blink of an eye and leave communities bereft.

Which underlines a point I made in my recent Gray Matters column from the September issue: that it would be cool to help save icon local businesses that add so much character to our city and neighborhoods.

The mayor appointed a group, the Commercial Affordability Committee, to look at ways of helping Seattle’s small businesses. They identified a number of problems with the current climate in Seattle: less available retail space for small businesses, more expensive rents, disruption from the scale of construction.

Their recommendations came out at the end of September. They expressed lukewarm support for the idea of identifying and helping to promote older “legacy” businesses—a kind of landmarks program for cool, heritage taverns, restaurants, clubs, and cool, local small businesses advocated by city council member Lisa Herbold. They rejected the idea of giving “legacies” direct city grants, which is apparently illegal here. Also somewhat controversially they dismissed the idea of instituting rent control for small business, which they said could hurt landlords and lead to deferred maintenance on buildings. This shoots down something that potentially could give relief to commercial tenants.

They did suggest creating a central “hub”—perhaps a Public Development Authority— for coordinating help for small businesses (50 employees or fewer, which means the majority of businesses in Seattle). It would help then find financing, meet city codes, and direct resources to them. They also suggested some ways to get business property owners some tax relief, finding ways to lease unused public property to small businesses, encouraging developers to include smaller commercial spaces in new projects, and maybe opening up space in industrial areas to small, non-industrial businesses.

In other words, no silver bullets, but a variety of incremental changes that could make a difference—for those that manage to survive the current climate. The solutions proposed are largely policy oriented and long-term. It’s a start, but if your favorite old dive bar is currently struggling, well, drink up.

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