by Chetanya Robinson
Two small blocks of businesses along Renton Avenue, separated by houses and Skyway Park, make up Skyway’s main business district, serving the unincorporated community wedged between Seattle and Renton.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s order in mid-November to pause indoor dining at bars and restaurants until December 14, to curb an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases, was a blow for some — but others feel it’s a storm they can weather for now.
Nevzat Cankaya has been in business in Skyway for about 25 years. From his perch along Renton Avenue, running his green espresso stand and talking with business owners, he has seen businesses close for months at a time during the pandemic. “I don’t think anybody is up to their regular business numbers yet,” he said.
While the new, more stringent COVID-19 restrictions haven’t directly impacted his drive-thru business, Cankaya has seen a drop in customers. “In the past, a lot of people would go and get coffee in the morning and then they would go to work,” Cankaya said. Now, “they stay home, and that means less business for me.”
With no mayor or City Council to advocate for them and distribute COVID-19 relief grants, let alone the kind of formal business improvement association that many Seattle neighborhoods enjoy, businesses that survive in Skyway have had to be resilient long before COVID-19.
“They’re somewhat more adjusted to downturn in economics,” said Hugo Garcia, economic development manager for the King County Department of Local Services (DLS), which serves unincorporated parts of the county. “That doesn’t mean it’s easier.”
“I feel like our businesses have been and continue to be prepared for this,” said Jeremy Williams, a member of the Skyway Coalition, which supports the community through housing and economic development. “It’s definitely putting a lot of unforseen stress, and continues to put a lot more stress, on particularly any new businesses in the retail core.”
Because Skyway is unincorporated, businesses did not have access to COVID-19 relief grants established by cities like Seattle. King County did provide $3.5 million dollars through two rounds of grant funding to unincorporated areas, rolling out the grants before cities like Kent, Federal Way and Burien distributed funding of their own, said Garcia. DLS has been providing technical help to businesses, helping them apply for grants, helping them receive money from the CARES Act, and offering coaching to apply for grants in multiple languages.
But money for grants has run out for now, said Garcia, and the County is waiting for Congress to provide more funding — or forgiveness for PPP loans. “I know it’s been tough. It’s still hard,” said Garcia. “But I think we’re getting closer to the end.”
For the Beachcomber Bar & Grill, getting through the next weeks will be a “struggle,” said owner Judy, who declined to give her last name. Now, customers can’t come in to eat or drink, but rent, taxes, and the electric bill are still due. “Let’s just say I wrote a letter to the Governor last night,” said Judy. “I feel that he doesn’t really have a plan.”
Judy questioned why big retailers are allowed to stay open, when the hospitality industry is faced with yet more stringent restrictions, even when following the guidelines. “Walmart, Costco, Target, Fred Meyer, Safeway, all of these places are still open and packed with people, and some of them don’t even have masks on,” she said. “Why do you want to blame the hospitality industry?”
The new restrictions are forcing the Beachcomber to close, for now. With customers unable to eat and drink indoors, there isn’t really a business, Judy said. “We have a lot of people that come in here because they enjoy the atmosphere.”
Before the latest restrictions, even during the pandemic, “I was doing good, I was very happy,” Judy said — though the Beachcomber almost had to close in May.
Next door to the Beachcomber, the fortunes of soul food restaurant Angel City Deli are intertwined with that of its neighbor; many Beachcomber customers would stop at the deli for dinner before heading home.
“There’s been definitely a strain,” said Lee Yusuf, a manager at Angel City Deli. But the business has pivoted to takeout and received a flurry of online orders. “For us personally, we are still striving and surviving.”
The pandemic has a unique impact on business in Skyway, Yusuf said, because it’s rare for people to stop by businesses on a whim. “When people come up to Skyway, it’s usually to do business here — it’s usually intentional unless you live in the area.”
Because it serves comfort food, between Thanksgiving and New Years is usually Angel City Deli’s best time for business, so it remains to be seen what the impacts of the latest restrictions will be. For now, Yusuf is grateful the restaurant can still serve as an employer in the area.
Skyway Model Shop is packed floor to ceiling with plastic model kits and crafting supplies for hobbyists to build mini planes, ships, cars, and more. The business has been in Skyway for over 30 years. Owner Emil Minerich said he is taking things one day at a time. “My first consideration is I want my customers to be safe,” he said. “I think that’s where it starts, regardless of profits.”
Minerich worries about the survival of restaurants and retail businesses in Skyway. Unlike many of them, he said, “We’re pretty fortunate.”
Williams of the Skyway Coalition is also concerned about retail and service businesses, especially the Skyway Park Bowl, which has had to shut down bowling during the pandemic.
Little Steamers Academy daycare, which serves families throughout the area, has been operating for about a year — which means mostly under pandemic circumstances. It lost half its enrolled families at the beginning of the pandemic, and they’ve started coming back slowly. “It’s stressful for our families and it’s also stressful for our staff,” said manager Shena Luna. Luna ran a portrait photography business next door, but at the beginning of the pandemic, decided to close it and turn it into a virtual learning center, where children from kindergarten to 5th grade can safely learn virtually while schools are closed. “We were able to withstand and make it through — to me I feel like it’s been a huge blessing,” Luna said.
The survival of businesses in Skyway has been a longstanding concern before COVID-19 hit. “There have been so many businesses through the years that have left the hill due to an aging customer base and lack of perceived spending power in the area,” said Williams in an email.
However, some in the community hope that new affordable housing and investments in Skyway — including $5 million in the County budget for affordable housing in Skyway and money for a future community center and other capital projects — will help the community recover from the “economic damages done before and during the pandemic,” Williams said.
Chetanya Robinson is a South King County-based journalist.
Featured image: Skyway Model Shop (Photo: Alex Garland)