A controversial Tri-City syringe exchange will move to a Kennewick neighborhood that is just shedding its image as a homeless camping area.
A roomful of Kennewick business owners spoke out at a hastily arranged Monday morning meeting and news conference, saying they were blindsided to learn it was opening in their neighborhood.
They blasted the needle exchange program and its new physician partners for choosing Kennewick before consulting with the community.
“I’m not happy that it’s in Kennewick,” said Mayor Don Britain.
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Walla Walla-based Blue Mountain Heart to Heart will begin Friday conducting a weekly needle exchange clinic catering to illegal drug users at 2628 W. Bruneau Place, near Vista Way and Highway 395. Hours will be 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Franklin County evicted Blue Mountain from county-owned offices in Pasco in February after it concluded the nonprofit had been dishonest about its exchange practices.
Commissioner Brad Peck cast the deciding vote to boot the exchange, saying he was unhappy to learn it did not exchange syringes one for one but rather gave out sealed packages of 10.
The county gave Blue Mountain 15 days notice to vacate. That alarmed a group of Tri-City addiction doctors, who moved immediately to buy a building to house the exchange.
The founders of Ideal Option said they didn’t want to see the community lose a service that’s proven to reduce transmission rates for HIV and Hepatitis C and that prevents overdose deaths by handing out overdose medication to users as well as their loved ones.
Needle exchange had 15 days to move
Dr. Jeff Allgaier, founder of Ideal Option, and his business partner, Dr. Ken Egli, purchased the West Bruneau Avenue building for $145,000 in a deal that closed Feb. 22, according to Benton County property records.
Allgaier and Egli established Incident 8 LLC to hold the property, according to Washington state corporation records.
Kennewick-based Ideal Option operates 24 alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation centers in 11 states.
Allgaier apologized for the short notice to neighbors, saying the 15-day notice meant it had to move quickly. The exchange hands out 20,000 clean syringes a month.
An interruption would be a public health “disaster,” he said.
Allgaier said he’d eventually like to see five syringe exchanges in the Tri-Cities and pledged to provide better notice for future locations.
New clinic to offer added security
Blue Mountain served about 330 Tri-City clients during its 10-month run in downtown Pasco. It exchanged dirty syringes for clean ones along with condoms as part of its mission to reduce harm.
The free overdose reversal drugs it passed out were used 98 times in 2018. Its 2017 budget of $260,000 was largely fueled by government grants, according to Blue Mountain’s most recent financial report to the Internal Revenue Service.
Allgaier said his team is adding features Pasco lacked after consulting with the Kennewick Police Department and the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.
It will have a uniformed police officer before, during and after exchange hours, as well as security on site seven days a week.
There will be board-certified addiction doctors on the premises, as well as mental and counseling professionals for exchangers who are ready to ask for help.
Allgaier said he and his partners are personally funding the added cost
Kennewick neighbors stunned and fearful
Its new exchange site is about a block from River of Life Metropolitan Community Church.
The church became synonymous with homeless camping in 2016 when the church permitted nonprofits such as Dayspring Ministries to use its property for a soup kitchen, bathroom facility, emergency shelter and campground.
The soup kitchen remains in business, but camping was eliminated after the city of Kennewick adopted a law to keep people from camping on neighboring sidewalks during business hours.
Neighbors fear the syringe exchange will bring that back.
Dance studio owner Wendy Robbins said she was stunned to learn that after all the work to clean up the neighborhood, a clinic catering to lawbreakers is about to pop up.
She said she had too little information about exchanges to form an opinion about the clinic, but she fears a repeat of the homeless camp.
Her business fell off by half because young mothers with children were afraid of the people they saw near her business. Robbins said business rebounded with the cleanup, giving her the confidence to renew her lease for five years.
Robbins said she was not contacted about the exchange and fears her dance school will suffer.
“This will bankrupt me,” she said.
Commercial zoning allows needle exchange
The city of Kennewick can’t stop the syringe exchange, said Lisa Beaton, Kennewick’s city attorney.
Syringe exchanges are considered clinics, which are allowed under the area’s commercial zoning. Blue Mountain’s nonprofit status means it’s not required to secure a business license.
The city gave up too easily, said Roland Jankelson, whose family owns Angus Village, a commercial complex housing about 40 businesses and offices.
Jankelson said one tenant has said it won’t stay if the exchange opens and he’s shelved expansion plans for a tenant. He is exploring his legal options.
“We have worked so hard to lessen the impact of the drug populations and homeless that were severely impacting the businesses,” he said. “It’s like the city never noticed it had been helpful.”
Kennewick City Councilman Bill McKay said he wasn’t notified about the Monday meeting until it was too late. While he agrees the city’s hands are tied, he understands business owners are frustrated.
He expects to discuss it at Tuesday’s council session.
“I think we are enabling a group of people that don’t need to be enabled,” he said.
Britain, the mayor, said he hopes Allgaier’s team will add at least one other Tri-Cities location to mitigate the impact on Kennewick.
While city officials said they’re happy Ideal reached out and is willing to compromise, they were frustrated that they had so little time to act.
“We were not happy with the notice we were given,” said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.
Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher said he had reservations, but agrees the community needs to tackle addiction beyond the jail, where one in four inmates is affected by drug use.
“We can’t incarcerate our way out of this.”