Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau has launched an effort called "See It, Send It" that asks businesses and tourism professionals to send descriptions and photos to elected officials of activity that they say makes both visitors and locals feel unsafe.
Outside the Inn at the Market, a small, boutique hotel at the Pike Place Market, general manger David Watkins has seen a young man selling drugs day after day.
In the past, Watkins has called 911, but said he didn’t see any police response. Last week, Watkins emailed a photo to police and City Council members of an apparent drug sale by the man as part of a coordinated effort by the tourism industry to bring a sense of urgency to city leaders over illegal and unsavory activity downtown.
“If you walk from the convention center to the Market, you pass open-air drug dealing, kids with pit bulls, aggressive panhandling and other disturbing behavior. This is one way to make city officials know what’s going on,” Watkins said.
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The effort, called “See It, Send It,” was launched last week by Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. It asks businesses and tourism professionals to send descriptions and photos to elected officials of activity that they say makes both visitors and locals feel unsafe.
Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of the visitors bureau, in an emailed message to city and county officials, said Seattle’s visitor experience has reached a tipping point.
“The situation is getting worse, not better, and we are hearing increasing negative comments from key convention, business and leisure travel customers and clients.”
Among the comments forwarded to city leaders was a letter from a Seattle native now living in Chicago who was in town for last month’s Seahawks game against the Dallas Cowboys.
“The aggressive panhandling and the sheer number of homeless are frightening. We could not walk five feet without someone literally standing in our path and asking for money,” she wrote. “Many Cowboys fans I talked with were shocked at the filth of Seattle and the number of homeless at the Market and Pioneer Square.”
The visitors bureau called on the city to increase foot and bike patrols downtown, increase enforcement of existing laws against illegal activity and aggressive panhandling, and increase outreach by law enforcement, human services and mental-health professionals to individuals most in need.
Norwalk said street disorder will be an issue in the 2013 city elections and that its members will support candidates who engage in the issue and adopt their recommendations.
The effort is setting off debate at City Hall. Mayor Mike McGinn’s 2013-14 budget proposal includes additional funding for 10 police officers, improvements to Third Avenue and outreach efforts to the homeless and mentally ill.
McGinn, who vetoed an aggressive panhandling bill in 2010, responded to the campaign with a lengthy email. He noted that hotel stays are up, tax revenues are up and 911 calls in downtown hot spots have been dramatically reduced.
McGinn also pointed to his City Center Initiative that brings many city departments together, including the police and human services, to address problems downtown. But he also acknowledges that there’s not a consensus in the city about how best to deal with low-level street disorder.
City Council members are critical of the mayor’s initiative, saying it lacks coordination and follow through.
“It’s not clear to me what the City Center Initiative is,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess, former chair of the Public Safety Committee and a likely challenger for the mayor’s seat next year. “It doesn’t have clear goals. It doesn’t have specific and measurable outcomes. It doesn’t seem to be well coordinated. And we’re not seeing results.”
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen agreed. He’s led the council’s Third Avenue Initiative, which also brings different departments and jurisdictions together to address problems along the busy bus corridor from the Chinatown International District to Belltown.
He said the mayor had identified three different people over the past three years as the coordinator of downtown improvement efforts.
“We don’t see a whole lot of progress. There are thugs hanging out, drug dealing and drug use, filth. We cannot accept this,” Rasmussen said.
Seattle police Capt. James Dermody, who recently took over command of the West Precinct, which includes downtown, said it will take “an exceptionally strong collective will” by city leaders to change the dynamic in the city core.
In an emailed response to city leaders about the visitors-bureau campaign, he said cities including San Diego and Los Angeles do a better job of coordinating human services and outreach to people on the streets and do it with less process than Seattle.
Tim Harris, the founding director of Real Change newspaper and an advocate for the homeless, said Seattle has existing laws against drug dealing and aggressive panhandling that can be enforced.
But he questioned whether a downtown where “people never see anything upsetting” is realistic after “four decades of increasing inequality and fewer resources to help people.”
He also called the mayor’s proposal to increase funding for outreach to the homeless and mentally ill stupid, because there aren’t adequate services to refer them to.
“More cops and more dumb laws to arrest poor people isn’t a solution,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.