Perfect storms hit downtown Seattle businesses

Oct 8, 2020
Written by John Engber, Retail Industry Coalition of Seattle Director

The COVID pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown have devastated downtown Seattle, with only 5–10% of downtown workers currently working there.

How long will it take for downtown Seattle to rebound to its pre-Covid levels of economic activity? No one knows the answer, but it could be a very long time as a complex set of challenges stands in the way.

Will people simply return to their pre-Covid patterns of working in their employer’s office or will people continue to spend part – or all – of their week working remotely from their home offices? Business leaders tell the Downtown Seattle Association (“DSA”) that 70% of 343,000 downtown workers are capable of working remotely.

Downtown Seattle has changed in another important way: 126 businesses have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic, according to DSA. The overwhelming majority of those businesses are retailers and restaurants. Just last week, both Columbia Sportswear and Bergman Luggage announced the permanent closing of their downtown stores.

“My guys are scared to go down there,” the owner of Bergman Luggage told The Seattle Times, explaining his decision to close the downtown location, despite its continuing profitability.

Bergman Luggage is not alone. The safety of its customers and employees was cited as the reason for Bartell Drugs’ decision to close its store at Third and Pike last November. “The risk we take every day with our customers and employees is huge,” Bartell Drugs CEO Kathi Lentzsch told Seattle Business.

Since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Seattle City Council has explored reducing the budget of the Seattle Police Department (“SPD”) and reallocating the savings to fund mental health and other services. Last week, the Council overrode Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of legislation to cut 100 police officers from the SPD force. Earlier, frustration with the Council’s approach to funding cuts led former Chief Carmen Best to take an early retirement.

Finally, the Council’s approval of a new payroll tax on 825 companies with annual payrolls of $7 million or more has created a new incentive for companies to explore expanding their operations in Bellevue and other suburban cities. While the payroll tax was not cited as the reason, in early September, Amazon announced its plan to grow its workforce in Bellevue to 25,000 by 2025.

A cluster of perfect storms has hit downtown Seattle. Now, it will take strong leadership to reverse this downturn and get downtown onto a path toward recovery.

Washington Retail is committed to working with others to restore a vibrant, bustling downtown in which retailers, their employees and customers can safely work and shop.

John Engber is a contract lobbyist for Washington Retail.