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

Some Pullman business owners are frustrated with the city’s plan to draw people downtown

By Alexandria Osborne For The Spokesman-Review

Frustrated by an $11.7 million city project to revitalize downtown, Pullman business owner C.J. Robert said she has had enough.

Robert said she will sell all three of her businesses: a coffee shop, a bulk foods store and a small restaurant, which will be listed with a real estate agent by March 1.

The main point of the Downtown Pullman Project was to beautify downtown, make it more walkable and highlight key gems in the area, she said. The project was also meant to address why people avoid the downtown area in the first place, including the lack of activities for children, she said.

“These were all things that absolutely we, as small businesses, wanted to happen,” Robert said.

But Robert said city officials have not been responsive to the concerns of local businesses over access, duration of the project and more.

Pullman Mayor Francis Benjamin said the project is meant to make downtown Pullman more attractive and improve the area for the local businesses.

Benjamin said the city plans to work with the contractor to ensure there is maximum access to businesses during construction, including a required 4-foot walkway in front of all buildings the entire time. The exception is when concrete is being torn out, but Benjamin said an area can only be closed for a maximum of seven days.

“(We’re) keeping that as short as possible to minimize the amount of time that businesses don’t have access to the front door,” he said.

The city is working with businesses on using backdoor access as well so businesses do not have to shut down while the front is closed, he said.

Benjamin said the city plans steady communication with local business owners so they know what to expect and when, which includes weekly updates on certain closures and different events to help drive business to the downtown area.

“Obviously there’s some business owners that are going to choose to just shut down, and I’m sorry for that. We are trying to work with them,” he said. “I’ve had a number of conversations … with business owners who are excited about the work that’s being done and what it’s going to mean for their business.”

Local business owners and city council members have had multiple conversations about this project, and Robert said she has been actively involved in those conversations for the past year and a half.

But Robert said local business owners have been told for five years the project would only take place during the summer months. In December, the project was extended and will now take at least twice as long.

“(They) decided to throw away everything businesses advocated for and then extended the project by 115%, more than double, at the drop of a hat because they ‘didn’t want to lose the money,’ ” she said.

Now, she will experience a loss selling her businesses because she does not own the buildings, so she will only be able to sell based on what their equipment is worth.

Robert said she did not want to sell, but she expects to see a huge loss in all three if she keeps them, especially because businesses in the college town already take huge losses during the summer months. Profits also have taken a hit because of inflation.

Robert said what she hopes her businesses are worth is not shown on paper.

“On paper, it doesn’t look as good because you don’t make money,” she said. “I haven’t been able to pay myself in probably a year and a half, but welcome to being a small business owner in Pullman. You’re working to basically continue to keep your doors open.”

While Robert said few business owners will openly say the same thing, the results of an anonymous survey showed 77% of business owners believe they will be out of business during the six and a half months the downtown project will take place.

Nick Pitsilonis, the Black Cypress restaurant owner, anticipates losing at least 50% of revenue while the project is in process.

“(That is) presuming the entirety of Main Street will be shut down due to vehicular traffic and parking, and that’s relatively conservative,” Pitsilonis said. “I think it could be closer to 60%, that might be a little more realistic.”

He hopes a model for construction can be made to minimize negative impacts on local businesses, he said.

Pitsolonis said he does not see his business being able to allow as many guests to come into his restaurant at once while the project takes place, so he is looking to have a temporary model where he does high-end, fancy dinners for groups of 24 on the weekends, when there is adequate parking and traffic flow.

“I’m not certain there’s enough folks in general around here for that kind of thing, but that’s the angle I think I’m taking because I don’t see how we can get 100 people through the doors,” he said.

Pitsilonis said he believes his business can bounce back when the project is done because he has some equity he can draw upon for the Black Cypress to survive.

On the other hand, he thinks it might take time to get community members back because they might build new relationships with businesses in Moscow during the time the project is in process.

“I think we’ll be all right eventually,” he said. “It will be a little bit damaging and, in some respects, create certain lasting impacts that will be hard and take some time to recover from.”

Pitsilonis said local business owners have been wanting a new downtown project for a long time, but the trick now is to survive, which will take a lot of effort from the community at large.

“The big piece is that … the community wants to support businesses during this time,” Benjamin said. “There are people working to help businesses be successful, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”