by Andrew Engelson
A two-alarm fire that quickly spread through businesses near the intersection of 16th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Roxbury Street in the heart of White Center early Monday morning has had a devastating impact on six local businesses. But the rapid creation and success of fundraising sites by customers and members of the community are giving hope to the businesses that were just emerging from a difficult pandemic year.
According to Shauna Sheppard, a spokesperson for King County Fire Protection District #2, the fire was first reported slightly before 2 a.m. Monday, July 5. The cause of the fire is still under active investigation, but Sheppard said it has been deemed accidental, and despite it happening in the late hours after Fourth of July, fireworks were ruled out as a cause. “The fire started in the basement of The Lumber Yard,” Sheppard said, referring to the local gay bar which has been a fixture in the neighborhood’s burgeoning LGBTQIA+ scene since 2017.
Five active businesses and one that was yet to open suffered severe damage because of the fire. In addition to The Lumber Yard, owned by Nathan Adams and Michale Farrar, the other businesses impacted are Nuggi, a boba and bingsu cafe that was set to open later this month; Rat City Tattoo; The Boxing Gym Westside; the bar Dottie’s Double Wide; John’s Hair and Nails; and La Tipica Oaxaqueña, a store that sells food and artisan products from Oaxaca, Mexico.
“I’m kind of speechless — it’s been hard,” said Lee Torres, owner of The Boxing Gym Westside, of the last year and a half leading up to last evening. “We’d go through little fits and starts: reopening, close, reopening, close, reopening … fire.”
In business just shy of six years, The Boxing Gym Westside has been Torres’ passion project. As a teacher and coach, bringing boxing to White Center is not just a way to make money but a service to the community. “Boxing is my love language,” Torres said.
But his customers and the White Center community are now returning the love. In a little over 24 hours, a GoFundMe page set up to provide relief for the gym has raised more than $26,000. Meanwhile, the local LGBTQIA+ organization White Center Pride set up a GoFundMe site for The Lumber Yard, and it quickly met its goal of $100,000.
Torres gives credit to a tight-knit community for the quick response. “The longer we’ve been there, the more love and the more appreciation I’ve had for the honor of being in that neighborhood. It’s an incredibly diverse neighborhood, in a way you won’t find in many neighborhoods, even in Seattle. Just the whole gamut, with every kind of background — it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of … it’s just a really special place to do business in.”
Young Cho, a chef and owner of the Tex-Mex-Asian fusion restaurant and food truck known as Phorale, was in the midst of opening a new boba tea shop called Nuggi with his sister Sharon Lei when the fire struck. They’d signed a lease right before the pandemic started and slowly moved forward on plans to open a cafe specializing in boba tea and bingsu, a Korean shaved ice dessert. But the fire “gave us a new 30-foot-by-40-foot skylight,” Cho joked in an interview with the Emerald. The shop, including hand-painted murals on the walls, was completely ruined. “We’ve been working over the past six months with friends and family doing tastings, and we were getting ready to do a grand opening at the end of the month.”
Cho’s GoFundMe, however, has also been successful and has already raised more than $10,000. “Everyone is coming together and helping us get our story out,” Cho said. “It’s a blessing to have such a strong community backing us during these times. There are a million small business owners out there. A lot of them wouldn’t have the kind of support we’re receiving. We’re just so thankful.”
In a phone interview with the Emerald, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, whose district includes White Center, said he’s spoken with King County Executive Dow Constantine about ways the County can assist the affected businesses, which are all located in unincorporated King County. “That’s something Executive Constatine and I were talking with business owners yesterday about,” McDermott said. “We met them at the site and talked about grant opportunities that the County has open that they’ll be able to apply for … for up to $25,000 in grants each.” McDermott noted these were existing County business relief funds, and he committed to looking for other avenues for the Council to be supportive and engage with the affected businesses.
“All of them have the community and clientele and support that speaks to how resilient White Center is,” McDermott said. “And while this is a blow, just talking with business owners yesterday, their commitment to bouncing back is really encouraging.”
Cho is already making plans to rebuild. “We’re just very positive people,” he said. “We’re excited to move on and figure out what our next move is. I’m going to quote [my girlfriend] Sharon — she said, ‘Buildings may burn, but dreams will never.’”
To help the affected business, visit the following GoFundMe sites:
The Boxing Gym Westside
The Lumber Yard (This page has already met its $100,000 goal and is now closed.)
John’s Hair and Nails
La Tipica Oaxaqueña
Dottie’s Double Wide
Support for Employees of Affected White Center Businesses
Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based writer and editor who lives in the South End.
📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of King County Fire Protection District #2.
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