Seattle ‘street scene’ putting millions in tourism dollars at risk

Nov 25, 2013, 12:48 PM | Updated: Nov 26, 2013, 9:47 am
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Visitors to Seattle are finding it hard to ignore drug dealers and homeless who linger in some of the city's most popular destinations, such as the Pike Place Market. Tourism officials worry the city's so-called "street scene" is putting millions in potential revenue at risk. (Photo: Michael Simeona/MyNorthwest.com)
(Photo: Michael Simeona/MyNorthwest.com)

“They think it’s worse than New York; worse than Chicago,” said Bill Weise, as he took an elevator up to the top floor of the Silver Cloud Hotel next door to Safeco Field.

“They want to know what the city is doing about it,” he said.

Weise, the hotel manager, was talking about tourists and their perception of Seattle’s so-called “street scene,” a euphemism used to refer to the mix of drug dealers, drug users, and homeless who linger in some of the city’s most popular destinations.

Weise said it is not uncommon to read comment cards left by guests who say they enjoyed their stay at the hotel, but would not return to the city because they felt unsafe.

“It’s frustrating because at the end of the day you’ve done everything you can. You’ve been very hospitable,” he said. “We want these people to come back. It means tax dollars. It means more jobs.”

Mike McMurray, 53, of Seattle, has worked at the Silver Cloud for seven years and worn many hats, including bellman and concierge. On any given day, he can also be found shuttling hotel guests to and from Pike Place Market, Seattle Center, Pioneer Square, and Westlake Park.

“On a daily basis, I hear three to four comments about the homeless problem, the drug issues, the aggressive panhandling, people who have been robbed,” he said. “I had some people who said that Seattle, in certain ways, seemed worse off than New York.”

A lifelong resident of the city who has spent decades working in local hotels, McMurray said the comments he hears are hard to accept.

“It’s very upsetting,” he said. “At first I was pretty shocked by it. I thought, ‘Well, they really don’t know Seattle that well. They’ve only seen one little part of it.’ But, I’m finding what they say to be true. It’s hard. It’s hard to admit that.”

He said he now warns guests of going to certain places alone.

“I’ll say, ‘Pioneer Square can be really dark at night. It’s a good idea for you to stay in groups and be careful,'” said McMurray, who recalled one guest who had their wallet stolen while walking through the square after dark.

On a recent afternoon, McMurray drove through the downtown corridor in the Silver Cloud’s white shuttle van, pointing out overhangs where the homeless gather and street corners where drugs change hands in broad daylight.

McMurray wrote a letter to city officials to encourage them to address the problem.

Henrietta Vanderploeg, 44, of Alberta, Canada, visited Seattle for the first time last week. Sitting on a park bench near the waterfront, she said she was surprised by the number of people living on the streets.

“I just thought, maybe, it wasn’t that kind of an area,” she said. ‘I expect that kind of thing in really big cities like Chicago and New York. I just didn’t know it was like that here.”

Steve Beckmann, 59, has given horse-drawn carriage tours around the city for 38 years.

“The situation has definitely gotten much worse,” he said. “There are people selling drugs up and down Pike Street regularly.”

Just last week, Seattle Police announced the arrest of 31 drugs dealers in the downtown core during a bust called “Operation Happy Holidays,” evidence that drug-dealing in the area is rampant.

“Seattle is a destination. It’s a beautiful city, it’s a vibrant city, there are a lot of sights to see,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb with the Seattle Police Department. “We want to make sure that we’re doing our part to ensure that people visiting feel good about coming back and spread the word.”

Three months ago, representatives from the police department were called in to convince a meeting planner to bring an 8,000-person convention to the city for 2018. At stake was roughly $15 million to $20 million in potential revenue to the city.

“She refused to come back to Seattle or sign a contract until she felt there was some activity or movement taking place that would change the ‘street scene,'” said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle, a private non-profit sales and marketing agency that works to increase tourism to the city and the region.

“We were able to convince her – or show her — that we’re making some great strides. It’s not better right now, and it probably doesn’t get much better for a while, but I think what really convinced her is that all of us who live and work here won’t allow it not to be addressed.”

Norwalk said Seattle must constantly compete for tourism dollars with other West Coast cities, such as San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C., and those who have a negative experience here will spread the word.

“We’re creating impressions every day, and many of them are not good,” he said. “It could be cruise passengers in the summer. It could be executives who are here doing business with Boeing. It could be a weekend Mariner game visitor from Tokyo.”

Norwalk read KIRO Radio several emails he received from visitors who were unhappy with the time they spent in the city.

“The drug use is blatant and the panhandling is aggressive,” read one comment left by a man who stayed at a downtown hotel in August. “I’ve been to many big cities and I’m from Detroit and have not seen anything to this extent, especially in the tourism areas.”

He read another comment from a frequent visitor to the city.

“I visit Seattle at least twice a year, but I was particularly surprised on the last visit at the poor state of downtown.”

Seattle’s mayor-elect, Ed Murray, said the issue of street disorder downtown will be a top priority when he takes office on January 1.

“I’ve seen this downtown be vibrant, die, and comeback. Now I see it kind of on the cusp,” Murray told KIRO Radio at his transition office. “You don’t want perception to become reality, so I think that’s what we’re fighting against. We have pockets of problems and that perception can really damage the whole of downtown.”

“KIRO Radio On Assignment” features in-depth, investigative reports on a variety of topics including government accountability, consumer advocacy and the criminal justice system. To send a KIRO Radio reporter “On Assignment,” email [email protected] or use our online form.

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Seattle ‘street scene’ putting millions in tourism dollars at risk