With a growing perception that the Seattle City Council and mayor are hostile to businesses that are facing mandates that increase operating costs, some Seattle business owners including restaurateur Tom Douglas have begun publicly criticizing city leaders for biting the hand that feeds their city.
“I just feel like this particular mayor and this particular city council looks at business in a negative light rather than the traditional positive light and, maybe, that’s an ebb and flow of how things get done,” Douglas said. “I find it, as a business person, unfortunate.”
Douglas, who owns 20 food service operations including 13 Seattle restaurants, has been in business 27 years in Seattle, starting with his flagship Dahlia Lounge in 1989. Since the beginning, he said, he’s seen council measures he liked and ones he didn’t. But, he added, he always felt like his thoughts and concerns were at least considered by city leaders.
Not anymore. Douglas said the recent run of changes is very different.
Douglas, who employs 900 people, said it’s not simply that the city passed mandates such as $15-per-hour minimum wage, sick leave and secure scheduling among others; it’s that the council and the mayor appear to have no time or respect for local business owners who are good corporate citizens, who have set the example for a fair workplace standards and who have helped create good local jobs.
“There used to be some sort of good feeling about a business person coming and opening a business in your town, creating a liveliness in our downtown core and certainly helping with jobs and that sort of thing,” he said. “And trying to be a good citizen through charitable work and through community activism.
“And I just feel that from the perspective of a business owner here — I’ve been owning for 27 and working for close to 40 (years) in downtown — that (goodwill) has gone away. There is no respect for that. That’s the feeling I get from my council and that’s where my frustration is.”
The frustration is echoed by small business owners, too. Dan Austin, 35, owns a pizzeria in West Seattle. He said that when the secure scheduling measure was being discussed, he and a group of small, single-store business owners requested a meeting with West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold to discuss possible compromises in the measure to make it more manageable for small businesses.
Herbold met with them for an hour in what Austin described as a friendly, constructive meeting. She then ignored all of their suggestions, he said.
“That was incredibly disappointing for us,” Austin said.
But not as disappointing as what would come next. Austin, who has recently helped to form an alliance of West Seattle businesses, said he and other owners were stunned to learn recently that the city council quadrupled their annual license fees. No one saw it coming, he said.
“Most of ours went from $110 (annually) to somewhere in the $400 to $500 range. And that was passed with a lot of us never hearing that it was going to be a thing.”
Herbold was not available for comment.
Other small business owners also have said the financial and political climate in Seattle is worsening. Louisa’s Cafe in Eastlake recently closed, the owner citing city-mandated business costs. And last week, landlords protested the new city-required tenant move-in cost restrictions as excessively burdensome to small-capacity landlords, such as those renting one or two units.
Douglas noted that as an owner he understands that Seattle is bigger and more expensive than when he started and he’s fine with that. He said he will continue to offer better wages than the industry standard and health benefits — as he has for 25 years. He said policy changes, such as the $15 an hour minimum wage, are not the sole issue. He supported a $15 minimum wage, he said, just not the way Seattle wrote it into the books.
What bothers him is the coarsening of the dialogue and the seeming indifference to business owners who should not be treated as enemies of the council.Council member Kshama Sawant, he said, provided the perfect example of what he is talking about.
“When we opened the Carlisle Room, we tweeted, ‘Hey we’re open for business, blah, blah, come on down,'” Douglas said of his Pine Street Restaurant. “Instead of Ms. Sawant saying congratulations, thanks for opening another business in our town, we get a tweet saying, “Oh lookit, the fiercest opponent to (the $15 minimum wage) is now opening another restaurant.”
— Kshama Sawant (@cmkshama) July 6, 2015
Both Douglas and Austin have said they are looking locally but outside the city limits when they expand next. Austin said he’s got a new location picked out and it is not in Seattle.
“That’s a strategic decision,” he said. “It’s not what I want to do; It’s what I have to do.”