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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Downtown Pullman revitalization project gets OK, but some business owners say it’ll doom them

Pullman residents have been discussing a transformative project to their downtown since 2019.

In those five years much has happened – good and not so good.

The Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport is still undergoing almost $240 million worth of projects to realign its runways and build a new terminal five times the size of its current one.

The local Washington State University football team shifted from its historic, prime-time Pac-12 conference to a less thrilling Mountain West conference.

And a new mayor, Francis Benjamin, was elected after 20 years with Glenn Johnson.

But for years, the Downtown Pullman Project remained just that: a project.

Residents, business owners and politicians alike backed the effort and worked together to make it happen.

Tuesday, during a special city council meeting, that work concluded with the approval of a contract proposal from Apollo Inc., a Kennewick-based construction company.

Apollo was the lowest bidder for the project at just under $8.7 million, according to Clayton Forsmann, city deputy public works director.

Though everyone in the room supported a revamped downtown, many business owners’ stance was clear: If the project occurs as the contract stipulates, they will fail.

The contract proposal was approved by the city council with a 5-2 vote with council members Carla De Lira and Eric Fejeran voted against it.

Forsmann explained the scope of the project at the meeting.

“The Pullman downtown improvements contract generally consists of improvements to East Main Street from Grand Avenue to Spring Street, including water, sewer and storm drain utility work, full road and sidewalk reconstruction, traffic and pedestrian signal construction, landscaping, and street furniture,” he said.

The Spokesman-Review attempted to reach Brad Brown, manager of the Pullman project for Apollo Inc. Though Brown returned correspondence, an interview could not be arranged Tuesday.

Nick Pitsilionis, owner of fine-dining restaurant The Black Cypress in downtown Pullman, said he and other business owners supported city staff until 2023.

“From the inception of Project Downtown Pullman through most of 2022, we felt we were in good hands. But that faith has faltered,” he said during the meeting. “2023 is a very different story. There’s plenty to be ashamed of.”

At the end of last year, the project had faced immense headwinds.

In November, bids from contractors were scheduled to be opened and presented to the public in the city chambers. During the meeting, the city was surprised to find zero contractors submitted bids.

The project was then altered by the city in a private session to extend the duration in which construction may occur in addition to other incentives and privileges.

An updated request for proposal was then advertised.

This time around, four bids were opened during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Throughout the process, Pitsilionis said he and other business owners asked simple questions of the city but were met with rhetorical answers.

CJ Roberts, owner of three downtown businesses, said little information has been given regarding how parking and accessibility to businesses will be affected during the construction phase.

“The city says, ‘We have this team of people working on it and it’s been drafted,’ but we’ve been asking for input on that draft,” she said. “Because they haven’t reached out to businesses to collaborate on a design for addressing these issues is why everyone is so frustrated.”

The city council has yet to offer specifics regarding parking and entry to downtown businesses because a contract had not yet been chosen.

Benjamin said downtown businesses will not have to wait much longer.

“The parking study city staff is working on will clarify the delivery and parking of these businesses,” he said. “When I last spoke to the staff, they informed me it would be in front of the council this month.”

Another concern of Roberts and others at the meeting was for businesses with only one entrance.

The project contract gives Apollo the ability to close the front doors of businesses for seven days during construction, consecutive or not.

During a time when their front doors are closed, then their business would be effectively closed without the business owners’ say, Roberts said.

Benjamin agreed that this will be the case.

“We’re not talking about the full six months of construction – just seven days,” he said. “And if you look at federal code, businesses are required to have a secondary access point.”

The state Department of Heath has reached out to city staff expressing interest in working with the fire marshal and local businesses to discuss what will and won’t work during front door closures, Benjamin said.

The price of the project was higher than expected from city engineers, Forsmann said.

Originally, the city intended to pay for the entirety of the project with about $9.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Now, the price tag is about $11.7 million, he said.

The sum is derived by adding $1.8 million spent during the design phase, the Apollo contract, $1.15 million of destruction services and another $100,000 of potential incentives if Apollo finishes the project early.

Regarding the other specifics businesses owners and residents have posed, Benjamin said city staff can begin meeting Apollo to deliver more information.

“Now we can start to formulate those answers,” he said. “We want to, in a timely fashion, get to them the resources they can tap into and other ways to help them start thinking ahead.”

But for Roberts, information has come too little too late.

She said two of her businesses, Grander Goods and It’s Poke-Man, stand no chance. She anticipates them both to go under because they are relatively new operations.

They missed out on recovery funds during COVID and have no long-term success that would earn a decent business loan – they stand no chance, she said.

As for her most tenured and recognizable business, Pups & Cups Café, she anticipates selling it.

“Other new businesses like mine are going to be completely and utterly devastated,” she said. “That’s the pure irony of this whole thing, that the city is going to use COVID recovery funds to decimate a downtown for decades.”

Benjamin assured, “Answers are definitely coming.”