Pasco business owners claim transients hurt downtown growth

Plans are in place to bring new life to downtown Pasco, with events such as twice-weekly farmers markets and the Sept. 13 Fiery Foods Festival.

Thousands are expected for the daylong event, featuring a performance by former American Idol winner Lee DeWyze.

But the ability to make long-term progress remains in question because the downtown continues to face problems with transients and aging buildings, some business owners say.

They blame the problems on the Union Gospel Mission. But mission management said cheap motels and rundown homes attract the homeless.

The owner of Pro Line & Soccer on Lewis Street said he's had enough of dealing with transients.

Mauro Ramirez plans to move his business several miles away near the Pasco Flea Market after spending 19 years as a downtown shopkeeper.

"I don't like downtown Pasco anymore," said Ramirez, whose sports uniform store is about two blocks west of the mission's location at 112 N. Second Ave. "My business, every year, six, seven, 12, 15 times -- people living in the mission, they come see my hats. They just take one free and leave."

Some business owners are even more worried about the mission's new $8.2 million men's facility and community outreach center, planned for a seven-acre site near the intersection of Third Avenue and Columbia Street southeast of the farmers market.

That's about a block south of the existing shelter. Work is expected to begin next year.

A walk past Peanuts Park and the Library Tavern can turn into a nerve-wracking experience because of the behavior of some of the people in the area, said attorney Ana Cecilia Lopez, who provides legal services to small businesses and people facing issues with the IRS.

"I really like walking around the city, going to Viera's (Bakery) or getting a haircut, but it's very uncomfortable for me," she said.

Mission Executive Director Andrew Porter said many of the people seen on the streets do not stay at the mission. It forbids drug and alcohol use and requires everyone staying there to take a breathalyzer test. It also has a strict curfew.

"I've had people say, 'People from your place were peeing in my doorway at 10 o'clock at night,' " Porter said. "I say they can't be from our place because they have to be in at 7."

Many of the people served by the mission are laid off Hanford workers, Porter said.

"The average person at the mission, if you looked at them, you wouldn't be able to tell they are homeless," he said.

The 24-hour shelter provides housing and three meals a day to people trying to resolve issues in their life, with a goal toward finding permanent jobs and homes.

It serves 6,500 meals a month, with lunch and dinner available not just to shelter residents, but to the community at large, according to its website.

The new mission facility would keep more people off the street, Porter said. It will have its own courtyard, where residents can participate in outdoor activities.

"When you step out our (current) door, you're on the sidewalk and the street," he said. "This will have a completely fenced-in component."

Porter contends inexpensive motels and drug houses are more responsible for drawing the troublesome transients to the downtown area.

'The two are incompatible'

Wherever the transients come from, they are driving away business, said Francisco Lopez, who owns clothing stores downtown.

"I have customers who don't want to come because they are scared of these guys," he said. "There are sex offenders (living in the area)."

Some business owners said the mission's services are needed, but don't like its location, said Felix Vargas, who served for decades in the military and with the Foreign Service office of the U.S. Department of State and returned to his hometown to become an advocate for the Hispanic business community.

They said they have tried to work with the Downtown Pasco Development Authority on moving the mission away from the heart of downtown, possibly closer to City Hall and the police station.

But, while the mission and the development authority have been willing to discuss the plans for the new facility, they will not talk about changing a project that's been in the works for several years.

"We've gone back to them to say we want a real dialogue," Vargas said of the development authority. "They have the lead responsibility to bring us all together. We want to support them."

The downtown development authority is organizing a meeting, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16, where mission officials can go over their plans.

Some business owners are worried about the development authority's five-year work plan, which calls for mixed-use buildings downtown, with stores and restaurants on the ground floor and apartments upstairs.

They would like to see businesses such as an Italian restaurant and Starbucks come into the area, as well as upgrades to the Pasco Farmers Market, but feel it won't work if more homeless people are in the neighborhood.

"(The new shelter) will attract thousands more people, it's just a half block from here," said Vargas, sitting across the street from the Pasco Farmers Market. "You can't have these grandiose plans and then have an expanded facility that will attract people whose only purpose is to cause challenges to the businesses. The two are incompatible."

The business owners had their chance to speak out about the new shelter three years ago when it was before the Pasco Planning Commission and city council, said Mike Miller, president of the downtown development authority. The council approved the special permit in December 2011.

Vargas claims city officials did not reach out to notify downtown business owners, many of them Spanish speakers, when the city was considering the permit.

"We have a city that speaks two languages here," Vargas said. "This project was important enough to take the initiative to meet separately with the downtown business community. ... The majority community here is Hispanic. You've got to take that into account."

Miller, owner of Moon Security in downtown Pasco, said it would be inappropriate to pull the permit now that the mission has raised millions for a new shelter. The downtown development authority supported the application at the time.

"They were already on Second and Lewis," he said. "We felt like it was a good spot to move them. Where else are you going to move them?

"I think that once people understand what they do, they'll be a little bit more understanding that we need to be a little bit more patient with this stuff," he said.

Some people have misconstrued statements that the mission served 79,000 meals in 2012 to mean that they serve thousands of people at a time, Miller said. In reality, it is around 72 people at each meal.

Vargas calls the mission a "magnet," with the meals it provides during the day drawing people who stay in the motels.

"By day, they can act semi-normal," he said. "By night they become drug addicts and criminals."

Ana Cecilia Lopez said such a shelter would never be considered in other sections of Pasco, such as the bustling Road 68 area.

"It's almost a little disrespectful," she said. "In their eyes, we are not deserving of the same type of respect, same inclusion and same protection as businesses on Road 68. It is very sad that our own city sees us as second-class citizens."

Other obstacles

Francisco Lopez said the downtown plan also needs to address aging infrastructure.

"If we could have an investment in the infrastructure to refurbish some of the 80-, 90-year-old buildings, make them attractive for businesses, then you get closer to the goals and objectives of the strategic work plan," he said.

Growth also is stymied by difficulties in getting permits when business owners try to make their buildings more presentable, Francisco Lopez said.

Hispanic business owners were initially attracted to downtown with reasonable real estate prices and an interested clientele, said Jose Llamas, who owns the Muebleria Llamas furniture store on Columbia Street. The new shelter would be located just behind his store.

"We've seen the possibility of making it a go here," Llamas said with Vargas translating. "But we've seen, over time, disincentive for continuing. The climate is not as favorable for continuing."

Some would like to see a larger police presence to improve safety.

Pasco police operate a downtown mini-station on Fourth Avenue. Ana Cecilia Lopez's husband, Harland Richmond, would like to see it manned more often.

"Daily, that might make a difference," he said. "But if the guys know that it's only once a week, these guys are going to know they've got six days to do what they want."

Capt. Jim Raymond countered that police have a strong presence downtown, with an officer assigned to the area 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"He is assigned to work with any of the business owners' needs or wants," he said.

Police also coordinate with the downtown development authority, especially during large events, Raymond said.

Hispanic leaders in the community are hopeful for a better two-way dialogue in the future with new City Manager Dave Zabell, Vargas said. They met Zabell when he was in town interviewing for the job.

"He came down here. He walked the streets of downtown Pasco. He pledged his full cooperation in working with us," he said. "We have every reason to believe he will remain true to his commitment."

Downtown business owners have decided to form their own "business to business" group, Vargas said. He hopes it will work closely with the downtown development authority, but will be privately funded.

The new, as yet unnamed group, will have seminars for business owners and will be open to any business in Pasco, Vargas said.

"The folks downtown have never really felt represented by any entity," he said. "They have determined the time has come to form our own."

Working with the community

The downtown development authority has developed a partnership with the police department and city government, Miller said. Business owners know that they can call the development authority if they have a problem and don't want to call police directly, and the authority will let the police know.

Downtown plans can be carried out despite the challenge presented by the homeless population, Miller said.

"People are coming downtown now," he said. "They may use that as an excuse, but look how many people come down for the farmers market. Look how many come down for Cinco de Mayo, 6,000-7,000. We're expecting more for Fiery Foods. Give 'em something good and they'll come down."

Miller is confident that downtown development authority's new executive director, Michael Goins, is providing leadership that will get people to come downtown even when there are not special events, he said.

"We're excited about what's going on there," he said.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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