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Fri., Oct. 5, 2012

Editorial: Beignets’ closure not necessarily city’s fault

The closure of Beignets restaurant on Wall Street is a tragedy for the owners and the dozens they employed. And Spokane lost a small element of the “downtown experience” that sets this community apart from any other for 250 miles around.

But for the owner, and many others, the “experience” too often includes an encounter with a sidewalk skateboarder, rowdy smokers, or shirtless young men loudly spouting f-bombs. Not the preferred ambiance for dining al fresco.

Welcome to urban America.

Every downtown has a population that, for reasons of homelessness, abuse, addiction or unemployment, coalesces where they find like company and a few services; food, shelter, the comfort of a crowd. Seattle’s congregates in Pioneer Square. In Portland, Pioneer Courthouse Square is the main hangout.

The behavior may be off-putting, but within the law, and therefore not a police matter. Call the cops and, even if they show up, there is little they can do except absorb abuse unless belligerence begets violence.

The pedestrian mall that is Wall Street has always been something of a collector for Spokane’s itinerants. This summer, more people than usual assembled on the bricks and planters because the Spokane Transit Authority has eliminated the area on Wall between Sprague and Riverside avenues that was popular with smokers.

With the restoration of two-way traffic, that block of Wall will become less smoker-friendly. But it would be unfortunate if the city looked at that as a possible solution for the two blocks from Riverside to Spokane Falls Boulevard. More surveillance, and removal of the planters should be tried first. What about a designated smoking area?

If it even has to come to that. It is easy to overreact. Beignets folded, but neighboring eateries subject to the same nuisances have kept their doors open. Convention goers moving about an unfamiliar downtown didn’t complain about hassles with street people in a survey for the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. To the contrary, they consistently mentioned Spokane’s friendliness.

And the food service industry is brutally competitive, particularly in a county unable to shake off high unemployment. When a restaurant as popular and venerable as Cyrus O’Leary’s closes, as it did last fall, the strain is all-too-apparent.

The street crowds, nurtured by an unusually long, dry autumn, will soon be dispersed by colder weather. The willing and the lucky may find jobs before spring warms the pavement. Others will return unless downtown businesses and city officials can come up with alternatives, or buffers.

More Beignets will happen. It’s the nature of the business. The priority for residents and visitors is an experience that is high on pleasure, and low on aggravation.

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