by Ben Adlin
After a string of suspected arson fires, break-ins, and vandalism in White Center over the past several months, small-business owners and community advocates are demanding action from county officials, who they say have chronically neglected the unincorporated part of King County.
At an online community action meeting on Friday, Oct. 8, merchants and organizers presented a petition to county officials, seeking more investment in victim relief, heightened security, and a more transparent relationship with the King County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols the area.
“We are being forgotten,” said Ana Castro, co-owner of the Salvadorean Bakery and Restaurant, which has been in White Center for more than 25 years. Castro said she’s spent more than $4,000 to replace the bakery’s large plate-glass windows after they were broken, and some staff are now afraid to come into work after dark.
“Something has to be done,” she said at the meeting. “We need more accountability from our representatives. We need them to come around here. We live it every single day.”
While small-business owners said they’ve experienced a sharp uptick in break-ins and other property crime in White Center for more than a year and a half, the situation escalated in July, when a massive fire near 16th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Roxbury Street destroyed six local businesses. Authorities believe it was set intentionally.
Another blaze broke out at a nearby 16th Avenue building in mid-September, starting at the Locker Room Tavern but also gutting nearby buildings. Yet another fire late last month caused damage a few blocks north, on Southwest Barton Street.
Huong Xua Deli, which Seattle Times food critic Tan Vinh said last year had “the best banh mi in Puget Sound,” was left with a gaping hole in its roof after firefighters tore in to protect the building from the fire at Locker Room Tavern.
“We are devastated in every way,” said owner Kevin Bui. “My goal is to rebuild the deli, but the funds will not be enough to cover the cost of rebuilding.”
So far, merchants who spoke at Friday’s meeting said most of the support they’ve received has come from the local community in White Center. A number of online fundraisers have collected money for affected businesses, and a recent block party organized by small-business advocates raised nearly $20,000 in donations.
County officials have directed merchants to apply for relief through a $2 million fund that was originally established to help with COVID-related relief. But businesses say the money has been slow to come and will be insufficient to cover the costs of rebuilding after the fires.
Bui, who owns Huong Xua Deli, said that because his restaurant had been open for less than a year before the disaster, he isn’t eligible for any of the aid under County rules. “I’m part of this community and will continue to advocate,” he said.
Lee Acevedo Torres, owner of The Boxing Gym Westside, which burned down in the early-July fire that displaced eight businesses, said roughly half of the businesses that have been affected by the fires have been trans- or BIPOC-owned.
Torres said he signed up for the County grant but that’s “still kind of in process.” King County officials also helped with permitting the block party to raise aid for fire victims, he said, “but I can’t really think of any other help that I’ve gotten since then.”
In an effort to hold officials accountable, organizers of Friday’s community event introduced a petition that calls on officials to craft an emergency fire response plan. The petition urges six key actions, including:
- Making a $175,000 annual investment to immediately provide private security in White Center, targeting damaged areas.
- Earmarking an additional $2 million to assist fire victims and stabilize the White Center Business District’s rebuilding efforts.
- Granting a minimum of $25,000 in immediate aid to businesses that do not have insurance coverage.
- Creating a task force of professionals to provide one-on-one assistance to fire victims, helping them navigate the recovery process and deal with insurance, utilities, public assistance, salvage, and other potential challenges.
- Building a more transparent relationship between the King County Sheriff’s Department and the local community, for example, by providing the names and badge numbers of deputies who patrol the area and publishing the department’s budget for White Center.
- Funding a permanent position to help retain existing businesses in White Center and guide future development, which advocates say would help curb gentrification.
“We feel like this petition we’re presenting to you today contains what we’ve been hearing in conversations with merchants and members of the community,” said Helen Shor-Wong, program manager and organizer at the White Center Community Development Association.
“We have gone through a lot in White Center. We are devastated. We are declaring a state of emergency,” she said. “And so today is a time for us to make our needs — our demands — known, because we have not received the assistance, the support, the funding, [or] the attention that is so, so needed.”
County Councilmember Joe McDermott (D), whose 8th District overlies White Center and much of the surrounding area, committed to supporting the petition’s goals but said that some of the changes would require action from the full King County Council.
“The conversation we’re having today, and the petition you’re sharing with us, is a clear delineation of what needs and experiences you’re having,” McDermott said at Friday’s meeting. “I will go to work with my team at the council, and in cooperation with the executive and his staff, to bring about and deliver on the needs in your petition.”
Pressed by Shor-Wong for more details and a timeline on action, McDermott said he was unable to promise changes that would require support from his colleagues on the council. “I’m one councilmember of nine,” he said.
“I can commit my personal dedication to delivering on the needs in this petition, as I’ve just done,” McDermott added, saying he’d only seen the petition for the first time about 20 minutes before the meeting started. “That will include working with my colleagues in the County Council to work to appropriate $2 million for emergency funding, but I don’t have that ability myself.”
John Taylor, director of the King County Department of Local Services (DLS), an agency launched in 2019 to help address the needs of the county’s unincorporated areas, said some of the requested changes would be easier to make than others.
As to the petition’s demand for a full-time staff person to help retain and attract businesses in White Center, Taylor said there was already a plan to create that position, but hiring had been delayed internally. “We can restart that,” he said. “We will get that posted on Monday, and we will begin moving forward on hiring that person who can provide on-the-ground, technical assistance. That one’s easy.”
Private security has also been a longstanding request from local businesses, Taylor acknowledged. “This is really an emergency,” he said, “and it’s been a slow, rolling emergency that’s unfolded over several months.”
While both McDermott and Taylor said they wanted to improve security in White Center, they said it might make more sense to work with the Sheriff’s Department, which already patrols the area, rather than hire private security.
Taylor added that the County is working with state officials to have a disaster declared for White Center, which could make as much as $2 million in loans available for relief. “I know that business owners here don’t love loans,” he said, “but it’s better than a kick in the teeth.”
Overall, he said, “we’re gonna keep working on it,” Taylor said. “We’re gonna keep working on it until we can check the vast majority — if not all of these — off this list. Some of them are heavier lifts than others. I’m gonna be honest about that.”
Notably absent from Friday’s community meeting was County Executive Dow Constantine, who organizers invited to the event earlier in the week. In his place, Constantine’s office sent Ashton Allison, director of economic development and recovery in the executive’s office, who offered a brief statement of support.
Shor-Wong of the White Center Community Development Association said she was “deeply disappointed” Constantine didn’t attend the meeting himself.
Others from White Center said county officials have been slow to respond to repeated requests for help. Donna Chan, owner of macaron shop Macadons, which opened in White Center about three years ago, said her windows were broken on more than six separate occasions in the past year and a half.
“I reported it every time to the sheriff’s office, and we also had clear video footage, but no action was taken because the police basically said they can’t really do anything,” Chan said. “It was only after the sixth time Macadons was hit, and finally being on the local news station, that there was any action.
“I feel like since we’re in the unincorporated King County area,” she added, “we get put into limbo a lot.”
Two state-level elected officials also attended Friday’s meeting. State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D) noted that his own family “used to have a small business on that very same strip when we first came to the United States.”
He said he wants to help earmark funds at the state level for fire relief and has already reached out to the State Department of Commerce to find other funding sources that might be put to use. “I’ll let you know once we figure that out, but this is top of mind for me,” Nguyen said. “I signed onto this petition, and I will do my damndest to actually push this thing through.”
State Rep. Eileen Cody, who arrived late to the event due to an earlier meeting, said one way to potentially address White Center’s unmet needs could be for it to become an incorporated part of Seattle or Burien. Those cities have more resources at their disposal, Cody noted.
North Highline, a formerly unincorporated part of King County just south of White Center, was annexed by Burien in 2010, but subsequent annexation efforts have fallen short.
“I think that in the long run, that’s still the discussion,” Cody said. “You’re kind of a little island there. What the state has tried to do is come with money to be a sweetener for whoever would take you. Burien took a chunk of White Center, so you’re even smaller now.”
Organizers closed Friday’s community meeting by pledging to hold officials accountable, but also promising to work closely with King County to solve the problem. “Please: Lead, coordinate,” Shor-Wong urged. “Come with action, with funding, and the community will be here.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: 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 in the early hours of Monday, July 5, 2021, has had a devastating impact on six local businesses. (Photo courtesy of King County Fire Protection District #2.)
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