Olympia's Business is Forbes Magazine's Business

What kind of year has 2006 been for Olympia?

If the Olympian were our only source of information, we might think that our city was hostile to business, ridden with crime, and wrought with poverty. Yes, things are looking meager for Oly according to our local news source, with their whiny editorials and interviews with the bitter Seattle condo developer who didn't get his way with the council.
The council, on the other hand, is optimistic about their new ordinance banning crimes such as sitting or standing without buying in downtown Olympia. They think the ordinance will do much to create what they call quality of life and address what they call downtown safety issues in 2007.

But what else was said about Olympia this year?

  • Sperling's Best Places named Olympia the 16th Best Place in the country. For families, Olympia makes Sperling's top three!
  • Inc.com's list of Boomtowns 2006 placed Olympia in both the Overall and Hottest Small Cities categories.
  • Yahoo Real Estate said Olympia is one of the six Best Places in the U.S. to Buy a Home What are some of the factors that make real estate great? A strong economy, and high opportunity due to a lack of strip malls and corporate chain stores are some of the reasons noted. (Take that, Lacey.)
  • Healthcare Traveler profiled Olympia, saying we are "one of the Nation's most popular small town destinations.". They are particularly impressed with our downtown's locally-based economy. (Oddly, they made no mention of the intimidating, uncivil behaviors of downtowners, vacant storefronts, or feces on the sidewalks. Don't they read the Olympian?...)
  • Yet again, Farmer's Insurance ranked Olympia among the most secure mid-sized cities in the United States.

It seems while the Olympian has been checked out, the rest of the country has been checking us out.
Happy New Year, Olympia. I hope our resolution this year is to honor the greatness of our town,find new avenues of greatness, and create even more of what we love.


A Light in the Attic

As Olympia seems to be on a course that will seal her doom it would be easy to just abandon Olympia and leave her carcass for the use of the developers and corporate interests. We have suffered a number of blows, we that love Olympia, and sometimes it is hard to see what can be done or, if indeed, something can be done.

Right now we are just seeing the skids being greased for the development of downtown. Concessions will be made, tax breaks will be given. Up in Tacoma the Old City Hall is being converted into condominiums. The cheapest condo there will be a one bedroom overlooking a halfway house for alcoholic men. This condo will go for $600k. And the buyer will not have to pay property taxes for ten years. This does not bode well for Olympia, one of the last best places. When money is to be made, deals to be crafted, we are in trouble.

Also in Tacoma is a grand old building that is presently being used as subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled. Around 200 units. The city officials have been determined to get the building out of the subsidized housing business and have been the opposite of supportive of those that wanted to keep it subsidized. I’m here to tell you that the building will now become a 4 star hotel. No one knows what will happen to the residents. Sure they will get vouchers to get other housing with, but in Pierce County there are thousands of people with vouchers and no place to use them. And by the way, the city will lend the billionaire developers of this property some low interest money as well. The city of Tacoma just doesn’t want poor people living downtown and they are determined to force them out to make it safe for monied people. The city admits this, at least they are honest about it.

Olympia’s city officials have not been as evil as those in Tacoma, but they are making a good start. The pedestrian interference ordinance is just the start. Soon social services agencies supporting the poor and homeless will be prohibited from the downtown core. Moratoriums will be put into place, retroactive moratoriums meaning that the present agencies will hardly be able to replace a light fixture in their facilities without fearing they will be forced out of downtown. Think it can’t happen? It is happening in Tacoma.

What I love about Olympia is her people. The spirit of her people. I don’t know all of them, I don’t know know how many there are, but I can feel the spirit of her people. The people of Olympia, the children of Olympia. The children of an experimental college and a brewery. I have no confidence in our city officials, but I have a surplus of confidence in the children of Olympia. Things may seem to be grim. The writing may be on the wall, but the children of Olympia will surprise you. Indeed, if the children don’t surprise you, the mother sure the heck will. And so I have a sense of optimism. The task at hand is large. The forces being faced are very formidable. It seems grim and dark and yet I know a light burns in attics all over Olympia. Cities can be taken away from the children of other cities, but the children of Olympia will not let this happen. At least not without a fight.

"The saddest thing I ever did see
Was a woodpecker peckin' at a plastic tree.
He looks at me, and 'Friend,' says he,
'Things ain't as sweet as they used to be.'"
-Shel Silverstein


The Problem Perception

I saw in the newspaper yesterday that 15 wallets were stolen this week from people's purses while they shopped at corporate stores in Lacey. I wonder if these people will come flocking back to the safety of downtown Olympia for the rest of their Christmas shopping. I can just imagine the angry letters to the Olympian: "I used to shop at chain stores in Lacey, but since the wave of crime and filthy hooligans that have taken over suburbia, I am afraid to walk from the Target on Sleater-Kinney to my car. We need to get these jokers on the Lacey City Council to take some action before South Sound Mall declines into a feces-covered, dilapidated, crime-ridden freak show!" Somehow I doubt it.
Becasuse I don't think any of the hysteria about downtown Olympia has ever been about people's actual experiences of crime or danger. They could be mugged and beaten for their shoes in the Hawks Prairie Walmart parking lot weekly and they'd still rather buy new shoes there every week than have to parallel park downtown and walk past a poor person spanging. The city has said one sort of sensible thing about downtown, and that is that we have a "perception problem".
The reason I say "sort of" sensible is because saying this is not the whole picture. The perception isn't an actual perception of unsafety, like some people claim. Its more of the perception of an unsafe perception that people are reacting to. Rather its not a perception of danger, but a dangerous perception that is being outlawed.
What I mean is that the fear is of the perceptions one may have downtown which they don't wish to have, which make them feel very unsafe. I would call this a problem perception.
People are afraid of percieving poverty.
The perception of poverty has an unpleasant smell: a mixture of wet socks, malt liquor, cigarette butts that are being saved for later, and a raging mouth infection.
The perception of poverty has an unpleasant sound: bitter, sometimes a little mouthy, always desperate, and this time of year it has an unsettling bronchial cough.
The perception of poverty has an unpleasant look: shabby clothes that aren't at all stylish or respectable-looking, and often aren't even attempting to be. Sometimes no shoes when its cold outside.
Yes, the very perception of poverty is dangerous and threatening. Dangerous to our cold hearts. Threatening to our greed. Not at all safe for our plans to buy ungodly amounts of stuff for our kids and family and friends this Christmas. Percieving this is dangerous to our way of life.
It is more dangerous than wallet-snatchers or drunk drivers or vandals or any other actual crime.
The bad news is that many people really feel this way. Mark my words, there is no charitable way to stave off the perception. The only way possible to get rid of the horrible perception is to swallow any pangs of compassion and legislate the poor from our peripheral vision-which our city manager determined stretches exactly 6 feet from the front of anywhere we want to shop.

The good news is that many people do not feel this way. I have been noticing the bustle downtown lately, despite the brisk temperatures. I see people with nice coats and shopping bags more often than I see people with cardboard signs. (Impressive, since it seems more people than ever have to hold cardboard signs these days.)
I see what downtown Olympia is best at: lots of different types of people engaged in a diversity of activities. Playing, working, shopping, sitting, learning, competing, riding, preaching, wandering. It warms the heart. Of course, that is my perception. Some people think love is a perception problem.
I suspect if you surveyed the people who shop downtown, you would find them to be much more interesting and decent and kind than those that refuse to shop downtown. The reason I suspect this is because I know that the perception of poverty is not readily dangerous to people who are looking for opportunities to understand the way things work, or solve problems, or do meaningful things, or be grateful for what they have, or share what they have.
In fact, these people are much more threatened by isolation, and malls devoid of creativity, and oppressive, phony laws than they are of the perception of poverty. We may be threatened by the experience of poverty, since through it we find ourselves in a condition of genuine danger, but we are not threatened by its mere perception.
It is a shame that we have the first kind of people in any elected position for this town. They have no credibility in this role, no business designing our law, as evidenced by the city's unconscionable amendments to the pedestrian interference code.
Its a shame that we allow the first type of people to be running the town newspaper. The Olympian gives them a forum in which to broadcast their ludicrous insights and pass them as reasonable thought. They do not publish any sense about downtown in their newspaper. It is strictly banned, except for sometimes a letter to the editor or a business profile. All the rest is nonsense and propaganda. You can tell Mike Oakland I said that.
What this town needs more than anything right now is to gather all the people who shop and work and live downtown, all the wonderful downtown businesses who are thriving because they are a part of the landscape of Olympia's spirit, and we need to begin to shape the policies in this community.
It is terrible that all the greatest thinkers and kindest hearts in this town are subject to a bunch of dumb rules made by people who happen to be more organized.
If some of our people were on council, a lot less time would be wasted by guilty Ebenezers touting how fair and charitable they are, and could be spent instead collaborating with other strong minds and hearts, working on some real solutions. Living wage jobs, transitional and low-income housing in downtown, safe streets, supporting the arts, building local business, and other things that have to do with real issues of safety and vitality.
I think that if Olympia has a New Year's resolution for 2008, that should be it. She should resolve all of this balderdash up at City Hall, and get some officials who are going to work for a sound future for our community, economically and socially.


meanwhile, back at the library

I really have to stop reading the comments section of the Olympian online. I guess it is like slowing down on the freeway to check out a car wreck. What brought me to the Olympian on this occasion was the reporting on the pedestrian interference ordinance that was just passed by the city. Of course I had to slow down and check out the car wreck that was the comments on the article.

While I find it offensive to read much of the comments, some are particularly revealing. One person wrote extensively about an experience at the Olympia Library. Some of the highlights were “the furniture was filthy with urine & vomit stains” “snoring bums” “unflushed stools” (you just knew that feces would work into the conversation somewhere).

I spend a fair amount of time in the library, probably too much time. I should actually be reading the books that I borrow, but that is something for another post. I have found the library in Olympia to be well used. Perhaps that translates into crowded, but for me it just tells me that Olympians love their library and use the heck out of it. The library is not just populated by the homeless. Yes the homeless use the library, it is a public library, and the homeless are the public. I have seen people sleeping in the library. Indeed, babies in their carriers, elderly well dressed men, business women catching a few winks, homeless people, to be sure, as well. People sleep in libraries, no big news there. Some snoring may be loud, but the loudest snorer I’ve ever heard in the library was probably a woman state worker. I kept looking around to see if there was construction going on somewhere in the library. I’m still looking for the urine and vomit stained furniture. I’m not sure where people are getting the notion that the library is a vomitorium.

The restrooms, while not pristine, were never what I would consider unsanitary. We do have the issue of too many people and too few facilities. Yes, people without homes will use public restrooms to wash up. I’m not sure it is fair to complain about “smelly bums” and then complain about the same people trying to do something about their hygiene. One complaint per customer, it is the smelly bums or it is the bums trying to freshen up, pick one and move along.

Sometimes you have to go a long way out of your way just to come back a short distance. All of the foregoing was to get me to my real point, the point I gleaned from the comments. The writer said that they would boycott the library and only take their children to Barnes and Noble and Borders from now on.

Those places are very much like libraries, but without the sleeping, snoring, smelly bums. They are like the library but without the weapons of mass defecation. They are like the library because they are public. Wrong.

B&N and Borders are not public. In no way shape or form are they public. A charge of trespassing can be made upon you for the slightest infraction. And maybe this is my real point. It seems to me that a good many people are really not comfortable with the public realm. They don’t understand the concept of a public life, they don’t know how to interact with a public life. They fear a public life. People want a controlled public realm. A mall or Borders provides this. Many people want a public life in a place that is exclusionary. For sure no homeless person would be able to spend much time in a Borders, they have security guards to deal with the homeless. For sure no homeless person could use the restrooms of a Borders, the restrooms are for customers only. Too many people seem to be very comfortable with the notion of private public places. Not me. Don’t like them. Anything that is about excluding people I don’t want anything to do with.A public library is just that, public. There are books, there is furniture. Facilities are made available for all to use.

The other night I though I was going to a sit down at Last Word books. I was the only sitter to show up. I had an hour and a half before the next bus or I could catch a bus leaving in just a few minutes. It was cold, kind of damp. 6 pm, hours before one could legally sit or sleep on a sidewalk when the new ordinance starts being enforced. If it was that cold at 6 pm I was wondering how people can sleep at all when it is way colder and they don’t even have the warm clothing that I have.

If it is too cold in my apartment I have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. I can’t imagine people being able to get the rest they need sleeping on a frigid sidewalk. Maybe that is why homeless sleep in the library. It is warm and they are dead tired. I don’t know much about a lot of things but I can tell you that if you don’t start your day after a good night’s sleep you just really aren’t able to accomplish much. Doesn’t matter if you are a CEO of a company, a state worker, or a homeless person. Get a job some will say to the panhandlers. Get some good sleep is what I’d wish.

There is a concerted effort to destroy a true public realm. This is not only true in Olympia, it is true everywhere else in our country. If I owned a Borders I’d probably be complaining about smelly bums at the library. It is good for business. If I owned a Starbucks I’d be complaining about vicious panhandlers so that people are driven into the confines of my shop. There are so many, and in my opinion bogus, complaints about what goes on in public. All of these complaints are designed to drive people to private public spaces. The complaints are designed to drive people to commerce. A private public place is something money can be made off of. Years ago it was laughable that people would be buying water in bottles. Now people are attempting to make money off of a concept that formerly free of profit, the concept of a public realm.What little of the public realm that is left is worth fighting for. I just don’t know if we can compete with corporate America. We have a fight on our hands, you are either with us or you are against us. And while we are at it, let’s get some UN inspectors to check out those weapons of mass defecation at the library.
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