October 4, 2012 in City, Food

Downtown’s Beignets closes, blames loiterers

By and The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Judie Sowards, owner of Beignets, is closing the restaurant because, she said, the people who loiter in front of the restaurant at 121 N. Wall St. have driven off customers.
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Owners of a downtown Spokane restaurant are closing their doors and blaming teens and adults who they say loiter on the block and harass customers.

Judie Sowards, who owns Beignets on Wall Street between Main Street and Riverside Avenue with her son Ryan Sowards, said her son once counted 110 children, teens and adults hanging out near the restaurant. The crowds have repelled customers and cut the restaurant’s business to less than a third in three weeks, she said.

“They have been right across the street from me, and literally for the last month they have been chanting, making horrible gestures and noises and just hurting the business horribly,” she said. “They need a place, too, and I understand that. We are not against the kids; we are against them wrecking our quiet atmosphere.”

Young adults sitting on a brick planter at the corner of Riverside and Wall on Wednesday afternoon said teens and adults started hanging out on the block more than a month ago after the Spokane Transit Authority permanently closed its smoking area at the STA Plaza. They say that they haven’t seen much, if any, harassment of customers, though many people who were hanging out there have shifted to a picnic shelter at Riverfront Park as a result of complaints.

They doubted that the loitering on the block resulted in Beignets’ closure.

“Businesses, if they intend to be resolute, should be able to deal with problems like large amounts of people who don’t eat at their business,” said Sam Workman, who was sitting on the brick planter. “It’s kind of a shame that they’re closing. I really wanted to try one of their crepes.”

Sowards said the city’s attempt to shift police to the block didn’t do enough to fix the problem.

“We tried to go to the city and get help and they basically said their hands were tied,” she said. “Nobody is going to walk in the middle of 100 some kids that are all smelly, and they definitely look homeless. They beg. They were coming by to my tables asking for food and drink, and that is just not right.”

However, city officials say they’ve worked to correct the problem and that the situation has significantly improved.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said the council met with Spokane Transit Authority and Downtown Spokane Partnership officials soon after the issue came to light. STA shifted security across from the Plaza, the police department shifted officers to the block and the downtown organization began hosing down the sidewalks twice a day. As a result, the large crowd of loiterers has declined dramatically, Stuckart said.

“I think everybody responded pretty fast to make sure we were doing everything possible,” Stuckart said.

STA closed its smoking area at the downtown plaza in mid-August after construction on Wall to make the street two-way eliminated the part of the curb that was the only area outside of no-smoking zones. State law bars smoking in public places within 25 feet of entrances to public buildings. STA also bars smoking, including electronic cigarettes, within 25 feet of bus stops.

Molly Myers, STA’s spokeswoman, said the agency shifted resources to the area where people are smoking and has worked with the downtown partnership and met with area businesses to quell problems. She said STA provided Beignets with a number to call to get quick response from STA security when a problem occurred.

But she added that the group of folks hanging out on Wall Street was much larger than those who previously gathered in the smoking area.

“Clearly, it has morphed into something more than it ever was,” she said.

Spokane Police Maj. Frank Scalise said the department has increased its presence along the block and is working to balance the rights of individuals with enforcement of the law.

“One of the challenges is that much of the behavior, while considered a nuisance by the businesses or patrons, is not illegal. We have taken a strict enforcement stance in order to have an impact on that behavior which is criminal. In some instances, this has resulted in making arrests for felony warrants and drug possession, but for the most part, the crimes have been infractions.”

Kathy Rocca, co-owner of the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop across from Beignets, said they had concerns about the loiterers before meeting with city officials. “Some customers were leery of walking through that area. Occasionally, customers wanted to be walked out to their car after dark.” Things are better now, she said.

“The City Council and the police seemed very responsive, and it happened very quickly. We were happy with how responsive they were,” Rocca said.

Sowards, who opened Beignets in mid-July, said she took out another loan two weeks ago.

“I thought maybe if we can hold on until it gets too cold, the kids will dissipate. But they are still out there. Last night there was a whole ton of them again,” Sowards said on Wednesday. “People are afraid to walk down here.”

Stuckart said there was a serious loitering problem on the block, but he believes that Beignets likely closed because of other reasons.

“I went to lunch there and I didn’t go back,” Stuckart said.

The restaurant received relatively mediocre reviews on urbanspoon.com. Of the diners who left negative comments, none mentioned being harassed or problems with loitering outside the establishment. Beignets’ savory crepes for lunch ranged from $11 to $14.

“We are now having to let 34 kids go to unemployment that want to work because of the 106 kids across the street that don’t want to work, and that is really sad,” Sowards said. “My kids wanted a job, and I have to let them go now because I can’t afford to pay them.”

Brian Elmore, who is living at the Truth Ministries homeless shelter and has been spending a lot of time on the block, said he’s talked to business owners about the issue, though he hasn’t personally witnessed harassment of customers. The larger problem is poverty and a lack of jobs, he said.

Government officials “won’t find a solution; they would rather push it off somewhere else,” said Elmore, who said he’s slowed his attempts looking for work after a long, frustrating job search. “It’s getting harder and harder to be homeless.”

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