FRIDAY HARBOR, San Juan County — It’s the day before their big auction and Howard Crowell and Rebecca Hughes are preparing their furniture store — and themselves — for a final day in business.
By summer, the 5,000-square-foot storefront they had rented for three years in the heart of the commercial corridor here will be an office of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The agency’s seven full-time officers, who process ferry passengers arriving from Canada and more private boats than any other port of entry in the United States, will work behind bulletproof glass on the busiest corner downtown. A holding cell will be on site, too.
CBP will move two blocks, vacating the cramped 600-square-foot space it rents from the Port of Friday Harbor for a site just a block from where Washington State Ferries passengers arrive and where commercial and private vessels are processed into the country.
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Locating a Homeland Security agency in the most prominent building in the heart of the tourist district has divided residents in this town, which boasts not a single traffic light, has resisted the ubiquity of chain stores and prides itself on being a quaint, welcoming place for visitors arriving from around the world.
Word of the move late last year ignited a controversy on the streets and on social media, and although it shouldn’t have — given the independent streak that runs through these islands — appeared to surprise federal officials and even the local property owner, Gordy Petersen, whom many opponents consider a friend.
Those who oppose the new location fret that CBP will be conspicuously out of place among the galleries, coffee shops and restaurants in the downtown core and could change the town’s character.
Some of them speak of a mistrust of the federal government in light of revelations about
National Security Agency surveillance activities.
Others lament what they say was a lack of transparency in the way the deal was reached.
Some fears run to the extreme: armed, jackbooted officers roaming downtown streets, drones hovering overhead or sharpshooters perched on a turret atop the building.
“Friendly island spirit”
“We are not bitter about being forced out of the space, but we don’t believe a Customs office here is the right fit,” said Hughes, who considers Petersen a friend.
She and Crowell have not been part of the organized opposition.
“All we can hope is that they’ll blend in and adopt the friendly island spirit,” Hughes said.
There are others in town who don’t get what all the fuss is about and defend Petersen’s right to rent his building to whomever he chooses — particularly after several years of unsuccessfully seeking a permanent tenant able to pay market rate.
CPB officers, they point out, are island residents, too; they attend churches here and their children attend local schools.
What’s more, they say, the agency has enjoyed a presence here since the mid-1800s, when confrontation over a pig ended a boundary dispute between the United States and the British Empire.
Folks in these islands have been finding things to fight about ever since.
And in late October, when they learned of the lease deal that had been reached two months earlier, their response was swift and strong.
At least two Facebook pages, blogs and local news sites were abuzz with comments, some of them angrily aimed at Petersen. There reportedly were threatening messages directed at him.
An online petition at
MoveOn.org that sought to halt the project collected nearly 400 signatures, including several from people out of state.
Residents packed community meetings, including one in which representatives from the CBP and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) fielded their questions.
“Vitriol and hate”
Petersen did not return calls to The Seattle Times, but in a Facebook posting expressed sadness over the hate and anger he said he felt from fellow residents on this issue.
He called some of his critics irrational, even delusional, writing, “No new agents from DHS (Department of Homeland Security) are moving here to spy on you.
“Many of you think you know what I should do with this property,” Petersen wrote. “Any one of you could have come up with a plan and offered to rent it. Instead you spout vitriol and hate and blame me for what? For trying to pay my mortgage? How dare you!”
Officials from CBP have been surprised not so much by community reaction but by what CBP Chief Tom Schreiber, the agency’s spokesman, called a campaign of misinformation “about guard dogs and gun towers and deportation.”
Officers operate in space woefully inadequate for their needs — lacking a waiting room for those doing business with the agency and private interrogation areas for interviewing people potentially inadmissible to the U.S.
“A lot of people say we’ll have a much larger footprint. But for so long we were operating out of a shoebox,” Schreiber said. “This is just a relocation of an office of half a dozen people less than a quarter-mile away.”
$2.2 million deal
Friday Harbor is one of 67 ports of entry managed by CBP’s Seattle Field Office. It’s been a tenant of the Port of Friday Harbor since 1978, paying $1,473 a month in rent, according to Port officials.
Charged with enforcing customs and immigration laws at the nation’s airports, seaports and border crossings, CBP, like other Homeland Security agencies, has been updating and expanding its aging facilities in recent years to guard against terrorist threats.
Under the 10-year lease, with a five-year renewal option, which the GSA signed on CBP’s behalf, the feds will pay $2.2 million, which includes building services and improvements and monthly rent of about $17,500.
Howard’s Sell It Again had been leasing at a less-than-market rate.
Town officials have remained on the sidelines, pointing out that the proposed use fits within downtown zoning. Permits for tenant improvement to the building already have been issued.
“We are an international port of entry with a lot of international boat traffic, which is a huge economic boon for the island,” said Duncan Wilson, town administrator.
“Everyone on the council would prefer to have retail. … But this is not our contract. It’s a private business dealing between the owner and the federal government.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, also has fielded calls from residents and has written to the heads of CBP and GSA seeking answers and pointing out that, “The community has worked to create a welcoming culture for residents and visitors.”
Atmosphere a concern
The building at the center of the dispute anchors Friday Harbor Center, which Petersen built in 2004 after one of the most devastating fires in town.
In local press accounts, he has said rebuild of the block, which comprises 24,000 square feet of commercial space, cost roughly $3.8 million.
Windermere Real Estate moved into the 5,000 square foot space that anchors the center and in 2010 moved to a smaller location.
Some residents have pointed to other, less conspicuous locations for CBP, including space near the port.
A spokeswoman for GSA said Petersen was awarded the contract after a “full and open competition to the lowest priced property that met all the requirements.”
Many residents question that.
Apparently the only other bid was for property about a mile from downtown in a business park owned by David McCauley, who also operates an art gallery downtown and builds websites for tourism-related businesses.
McCauley said the GSA had his property tied up for much of a year before settling on the downtown site.
From a tourism perspective, McCauley said he believes the change will disrupt “the small-town atmosphere” the town has cultivated.
“Between the airport and the way people get treated at the border coming from Canada, CBP makes people uncomfortable,” he said.
Cindi Piper, who works at Joe Fridays Shirt, kitty-corner from the new CBP site, said she would have preferred CBP had selected a different location, echoing the sentiment of many residents regardless of which side they are on.
“Tourists to the island should see something other than Homeland Security,” said Piper, while acknowledging that the deal is done.
But Penny Fitzgerald, who works in her daughter’s store, San Juan Florists, just a few doors south of the corner, said she doesn’t get what all the fuss is about: “The lease is already signed; it’s a done deal. We need to move on.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.