If you haven’t been to downtown Olympia lately, you might be surprised at how popular it is
The trends in downtown Olympia are terrific: 84 percent of community residents and downtown stakeholders say it’s on the right track, up from 21 percent in 2020.
There are over a thousand new units of downtown housing, nearly all full. More are on the way, and none has displaced the low- or subsidized-rent housing that was already there.
It’s now hard to find a parking place on Saturdays. And if you want to have dinner downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll probably need a reservation.
In 2018, downtown was besieged by unmanaged tent camps, and people slept in nearly every alcove and alley. In 2020, it was besieged by window-smashing anarchists. At the same time, the COVID pandemic shuttered businesses and kept customers at home.
Now the lights are back on — more lights, in fact, than ever before, including festive lights across streets and even in alleys. The city’s police walking patrol is fully staffed, and its Crisis Response Unit and Familiar Faces programs are helping people who need it.
The Olympia Downtown Alliance, a business group, provides grants to business owners for curb-appeal amenities like planters filled with greenery and flowers. It’s springtime in downtown Oly.
The ODA has its own premium-level maintenance staff, and their data on the nature of their encounters with people is also encouraging. In February 2021, they provided homeless outreach services to 227 people; this February, that number was 100.
Homelessness has not really abated, but it is no longer centered downtown. Now, tent camps are along Martin Way, in Lacey, and in west Olympia. The city’s “mitigation site,” a city-run camp that got about 100 people off the streets and out of parking lots, has moved from downtown to a new site near Interstate 5 with more staff and micro-shelters, a big upgrade from tents.
Our homeless crisis is still a crisis, but there has been progress, and more is on the way.
All this is a huge relief for Mike Reid, the city’s Economic Development Director, who says that for a couple of years, he felt like he was on “a perpetual apology tour” for conditions downtown. Now his job is far more upbeat.
Shina Wysocki, ODA president and partner in the downtown restaurant Chelsea Farms, says, “In retrospect, the city has done a good job. At first, it was like the pandemic — no one knew what to do. Homelessness is an epidemic all up and down the West Coast, and Olympia is doing a lot better than Portland or Seattle.”
“The big wheels of government have started to turn,” says Todd Cutts, the ODA’s executive director. “The city is more nimble than the state, and we know the city alone will not be able to solve the problem.”
There are undoubtedly still entrepreneurs who are not happy with the city, most especially those who’ve closed in the last few years. But 2021 brought a net gain of 16 new businesses, and 2022 saw a net gain of 12.
As Cutts notes, there are still a few too many empty buildings along the most visible downtown streets. The ODA hopes to lease one or more of them to provide space for micro-enterprises and pop-ups.
Dean Jones, proprietor of Encore Chocolates and Teas, says, “If I were giving advice, I’d tell anyone who wants to be in retail to get leases downtown now, because demand is going up and so will prices.” His business, like others, is benefiting from the influx of downtown residents.
Wyksocki, a fifth generation Olympian, envisions a future in which downtown combines its heritage of gritty, funky dive bars, tattoo parlors and street life with new, creative elements. “You can feel the energy of new businesses and more people downtown.”
Her business neighbor, Sophia Landis of Sofie’s Scoops, joins Jones in hoping for more global cuisines — especially an Ethiopian restaurant. We second that emotion.
And we salute all those who’ve helped revitalize our one and only historic downtown.