Photo of the burned exterior of the Lumber Yard Bar, Rat City Tattoo, and The Boxing Gym Westside in White Center.

White Center Community Frustrated by Delayed Response to Fires

by Ben Adlin

White Center community leaders and small-business owners say they’re disappointed with King County officials’ response to a string of fires, break-ins, and vandalism that in recent months has devastated the area’s commercial hub

They describe the situation as yet another example of how unincorporated parts of the county lack sufficient services and government support. But County officials say they’re responding to White Center fires and have made progress addressing the community’s concerns.

Local business owners submitted a formal petition to County officials nearly a month ago, calling for further direct aid to fire victims, investment in private security to patrol the area, and a more transparent relationship with the sheriff’s office and fire departments. They also want the County to hire an additional staff member to provide one-on-one support to local businesses, a position designed not only to help with the recovery effort but also to guard against displacement caused by gentrification in White Center.

“That one’s easy,” said John Taylor, director of King County’s Department of Local Services (DLS), at the Oct. 8 meeting where community members presented the petition. “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.”

The position, however, was not posted the following Monday, nor for three more Mondays after that. Community organizers say they didn’t even receive a draft description of the new role until earlier this week, after reminding Taylor’s office by email that they were still waiting.

County officials also arranged an Oct. 19 online meeting that they framed as a response to the petition. “They said, ‘Hey, Helen, get people there, because it’s about the petition items,’” said Helen Shor-Wong, program manager and organizer at the White Center Community Development Association (CDA). “We got merchants there, but then we were disappointed to know that it wasn’t about the petition.”

The meeting did touch on many of the issues raised by the community — the status of the suspected arsons; how fire victims could access certain relief funds and loans — but Shor-Wong felt it was long on talk and short on action.

During the first portion of the meeting, King County Executive Dow Constantine delivered a statement on the fires and other damage. He said the County would dedicate more funds to pay for overtime for King County Sheriff’s Office deputies who patrol White Center, and he generally emphasized the County’s commitment to the region’s recovery.

One change announced at the meeting was that, rather than the single County-level position to provide support to White Center businesses, the County is hiring two new employees, albeit on a slower timeline than first promised. The positions — for an “urban economic recovery specialist” and a “business district recovery manager,” according to drafts described by Shor-Wong — would be temporary and last no more than three years, with salaries as high as $112,000.

County officials also pointed to an existing $1.3 million Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program and a new $2 million loan fund established as the result of a disaster designation for the area. Shor-Wong and others, however, said the grants have been slow to be processed, and merchants needed help months ago. She doubted that the business owners she works with would be willing to take on additional loans.

The second half of the meeting consisted of a parade of law enforcement, fire, and County officials giving a presentation on how to contact emergency services and practice basic fire safety. One official reminded business owners to report any suspicious activity, while another emphasized the importance of having fire extinguishers on hand.

Shor-Wong, who pointed out that some fires had happened in abandoned buildings, said she found the presentations “painful.” Merchants who attended the meeting were similarly unimpressed.

“Basically, what I’m getting is that we should call 911, even when we’re in doubt,” said Lee Acevedo Torres, owner of The Boxing Gym Westside, which burned down in an early July fire that displaced eight businesses. Roughly half the businesses were trans- or BIPOC-owned, he said.

Ana Castro, co-owner of Salvadorean Bakery and Restaurant, which has been in White Center for more than 25 years, told officials that employees are now scared to be at work outside of daylight hours, adding that someone recently followed one worker on their bus ride home.

“To me, it’s very important we resolve these issues as soon as possible,” Castro said. “I can understand you guys know what is going on, but you haven’t lived the situation. We are living it.”

In an email to the White Center CDA after the meeting, one business owner, who asked not to be identified because their comments were given in confidence, said their “primary feeling/takeaway from the meeting was disappointment at just how unprepared the County is to actually listen to, and work on behalf of, the community of White Center.”

“The way that meeting was organized, using a series of ‘experts’ with their slideshows and statistics to ‘teach’ us what it is like to live and own a business in White Center, while simultaneously ignoring our own actual life experiences of living and working in White Center — which we had hand-delivered to them in the form of the petition — really highlighted for me how none of the official speakers had any level of self-awareness of how different their lives are from ours,” the letter said.

One example the business owner gave was of North Highline Fire District No. 2 Chief Mike Marrs’ presentation, which the owner said “described a series of steps business owners could take to make their stores fronts [sic] less likely to burn down (which is already a pretty wild take on what is happening).”

“Almost all his suggestions included addition[al] money and energy from the owner, or assumed an amicable/helpful relationship with an involved or responsible landlord,” the letter said. “I’m sure that those suggestions would be useful to an upper-middle-class neighborhood that has access to all of those additional resources, but I’m not sure who here in White Center has that level of extra resource to put in.”

Shor-Wong said she’s not yet comfortable asking community members to attend another meeting organized by the County. 

“Merchants, with CDA organizers, are drafting a letter to John that just tells him why we’re disappointed in that meeting,” she told the Emerald. “I think they thought maybe it was a good meeting.”

The CDA is also organizing a community action on-site in White Center, which Shor-Wong said will likely happen in December. She envisions the event as “a caravan of community members walking from storefront to storefront” of businesses affected or displaced by the fires, “remembering, grieving, celebrating what happened in those storefronts.”

The goal, she said, is to hold King County accountable and direct more attention to the local businesses’ petition, which as of this week has been signed by more than 800 people. The CDA hopes to gather a thousand total signatures by next month’s event.

Taylor, the director of King County’s Department of Local Services, told the Emerald he understands the community’s frustration at delays and other obstacles. But he said his office has been working dutifully toward addressing problems raised by the community.

“We have responded to that petition,” Taylor said. “I think almost every single point we’ve been able to address.”

As for the lag on posting the new job position aimed at economic recovery in White Center, Taylor said his office “ended up retooling that position” before it could go live. There are also two positions now, instead of just one as initially planned.

“Helen is justified in feeling frustrated that those should have gone up faster,” he said, “but we have done an awful lot to respond to businesses that have been impacted by these fires, and we will do more.” 

The County intends to involve the community in the hiring process for the two new positions, he said, while another round of grants will probably go out to small businesses “within the next couple of months.”

“Almost all of them received grants in this most recent round, to varying degrees,” he said of fire-affected businesses. “In addition to that, we’ve been trying to help them with other issues.”

When fires broke out in July and September, Taylor said, he and other County officials were there, coordinating the response and helping to clean up. The department also waived permitting fees and worked with the King County Department of Assessments to help address problems that property owners might be having with tax liens, he said.

Some merchants nevertheless complained at past meetings that they’ve struggled to source supplies, such as plywood to cover broken windows or burnt-out buildings.

While some small-business owners were frustrated that the County didn’t hire private security to patrol White Center, as the petition requested, Taylor said the County is unable to hire private security for private business because it would run afoul of State laws about gifts of public funds. “The better path is to pay the sheriff to provide extra patrols and extra focus in White Center to attend to some of the issues that are popping up,” he said, which will happen as the result of additional overtime funds.

The County is also limited in the types of revenues it can raise compared with incorporated cities; for example, limiting property tax increases at the County level to 1% annually limits the total pool of money the County has to spend.

Overall, Taylor said, the Department of Local Services (DLS) — which King County launched in 2019 specifically to listen and respond to local community and business needs in unincorporated areas such as White Center — has been steadily making progress.

“It’s easy and understandable to say things aren’t going well in White Center because of the fires,” he said. “But on balance, I think they’re doing way better in White Center today than they were.”

Shor-Wong, at the White Center CDA, said she recognizes the improvements that DLS has made, but she and other community organizers “knew from the beginning that it would be inadequate because it was just one or two staff people.” She’s worried the department isn’t adequately prepared to respond to the needs of a rapidly changing urban area such as White Center.

“It’s really a pivotal time for White Center,” she said, noting that a collision of factors — the fires, the pandemic, and the sharp rise in rent and housing costs — have led to more businesses, families, and elders being displaced.

One big factor in determining White Center’s future is the County’s North Highline Subarea Plan and Community Needs List, a sweeping document that covers land use, zoning, and other decisions around how the area will grow over the next 20 years. The County recently extended public comment on the Subarea Plan through Nov. 28.

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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