Can downtown Aberdeen stay afloat?

Downtown Aberdeen needs a lifeline. The area has gone through many iterations, from a resource-rich land attractive to Indigenous communities and pioneers to a seedy town of booming sawmills and railroad ambitions, but its latest transition remains undetermined.

Some members of the community, such as Wil Russoul, have tried to reimagine the area as a thriving business core filled with unique, experience-driven local shops. Russoul serves as Executive Director of the Downtown Aberdeen Association, a group that seeks to improve the downtown corridor and host events in the area throughout the year.

While he has dreams of getting vehicles to stop briefly in Aberdeen on their way farther west, he believes that support must come from the ground up.

“Tourism is going to put them (businesses downtown) in the black, but their day-to-day business is the locals. People need to be less Point A to Point B. Those are the people we need to at least show up and buy a cup of coffee so that the coffee shop doesn’t have to close at 1 p.m.,” he said.

But bringing locals back to the downtown corridor requires more work than seasonal events and a few surviving businesses.

“The first thing that comes to mind (are) the problems that I’m having with the homeless group. There’s probably more mental health and addictive problems that fit better to describe the issue,” said Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave in a phone call with The Daily World. “That’s a serious problem because it affects our businesses, everything about our community — our citizens and the tourists — and it’s having a negative impact.”

According to Schave, the city is working diligently to find solutions to the presence of the homeless community in downtown Aberdeen, but is also limited in its ability to act.

“From a police chief standpoint, the safety of our patrons and people that visit our businesses is of concern,” said Aberdeen Police Department Chief Steven Shumate. “The city kind of did a 180 as it came to addressing the homeless population. That direction really did not come with a lot of planning.”

Some solutions have had unintended consequences, such as last winter’s recent cold weather shelter on the corner of Market and K streets.

“I have fielded, and the mayor has forwarded to me, concerns from business owners downtown. It was elevated when the cold weather shelter was up and running, and we had many, many issues in that area in the off hours like loitering,” Shumate said.

Other potential solutions have failed to get out of the starting gate.

In April 2021, the Grays Harbor County Board of Commissioners passed on federal and state funds for a low-barrier homeless shelter in Aberdeen. Commissioners Kevin Pine and Jill Warne made no motion when a report recommending the approval of the contract for the shelter was presented. Pine and Warne declined the $1.1 million in funding offered for the shelter because the shelter model doesn’t require sobriety.

“I am hopeful that the city council and the new committee that they are creating is going to be coming up with some viable solutions to address the homelessness issue. The PD can’t solve this problem alone, and it really has to be a partnership with a variety of different stakeholders to address that issue,” Shumate said.

Looking to Olympia, Shumate believes there are some unconventional approaches that can have positive impacts, such as hiring “peer employees” to walk the downtown business corridor and encourage individuals to seek resources.

The officers at APD do similar work every day, but in lieu of sustainable solutions, the issue remains repetitive and detracts from crucial law enforcement resources.

With four APD officers retiring within a five-week period and two positions already vacant, APD will head into the summer months short-staffed after receiving over 100 calls a day in March and April.

“Our jail is full, and we just don’t make those kinds of arrests, because it just doesn’t help the problem,” Shumate said. “We have to have a location for which the homeless community can go because it’s not working where they’re currently at.”

In the meantime, the city is working to address more surface-level issues surrounding aesthetics in the downtown area.

“We’re trying to keep our business area clean and active, but it is turning out to be a little more difficult than you would think,” Schave said.

The city has hired a small crew to clean the trash of litter — a task they perform at least twice a day, according to Schave. They quickly fill up a small dump truck with trash every morning, and do another sweep to pick up loose shopping carts.

“The bottom line is: it has to be done, so right at the moment the city is doing it,” he said.

But cleaning the streets is just one piece in the puzzle of revitalizing downtown Aberdeen. Vacant buildings haunt the downtown area, the doorways of which provide refuge for the homeless as the structures slowly fall into disrepair.

“There are a lot of empty buildings, and there has been for a long, long time,” Schave said. “I think the days when we called them ‘historic buildings’ are a thing of the past, I think they’re more derelict buildings now.”

According to Schave, he has addressed the scourge of vacant buildings with city staff, but it has never become a priority subject.

“I think that something needs to be done. Either find a way to make these buildings useful again, or tear them down. Tearing them down is not a popular idea, but the reality is they either need to be torn down or renovated,” he said. “I don’t care where you go, or who you are, when you go into a community like that it gives you an impression right off the bat.”

Property owners, however, are limited by the constraints of Federal Emergency Management Agency-mandated regulations and expensive flood insurance. According to a regulation of the National Flood Insurance Program, improvements to a structure can’t exceed 50 percent of its market value unless the entire structure is brought into full compliance with current flood regulations.

Some property owners, such as Oregon businessman Terry Emmert of Emmert International, purchased flood zone properties after they were drawn in the flood zone and were mandated to have flood insurance. According to records from the Grays Harbor County Assessor’s Office, Emmert began purchasing property in the county in July 2019 and now owns more than 20 buildings in downtown Aberdeen.

“I’ve organized meetings to confront this issue with other entities around us, we’re in the process. I think we need to come up with some way of making the empty, old, building owners more responsible for making the building more presentable and usable,” Schave said.

According to Emmert, who has repainted several of his buildings in downtown Aberdeen and has replaced windows, making buildings in the downtown area presentable is difficult without a sense of law and order.

“When law enforcement, or the city attorney, or city management doesn’t enforce the law, how often can you keep repainting the buildings?” he asked. “We need the support of our police force, who are willing to enforce the law, and if the city bureaucracy will support the police, then I’m all in favor of the buildings having face lifts.”

While he supports efforts to beautify and revitalize the downtown corridor, Emmert believes the city must create an environment where improvements can be sustained in the long term.

“It takes a combination, but I think the mayor is absolutely right that everyone should make an effort, but the city has to make the same effort to protect people’s investment,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to tear down the 100-year-old buildings that are a piece of history and replace it with a high rise, but we want to improve it, bring it back to what it was.”

Incentivizing building owners to address vacancy and aesthetics issues may prove difficult, especially as much of eastern Aberdeen remains a federally-designated Opportunity Zone (OZ).

OZs were created by the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 to incentivize investment in low-income communities. OZ designations are determined by a state nomination process based on census tracts, and then certified by the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

OZs benefit investors by allowing them to delay, and in some cases reduce, paying taxes on capital gains. Investors must file with the IRS to create a Qualified Opportunity Fund (QOF), which is structured as either a partnership or corporation for the purpose of investing in an OZ.

Property owners, however, must sell their holdings in an OZ in order to accumulate relevant capital gains taxes.

“There’s that misconception that we’re just inviting more people into the flytrap. I think Opportunity Zones should be marketed another way, because I think we all have concerns here about absentee landlords and buildings that just sit there,” Russoul said.

According to Schave, the city is working to encourage private investment in the downtown area, and is in the nascent stages of considering higher-end apartments to bring those looking to downsize into the downtown corridor.

Relying on outside investment to revitalize the downtown corridor is a slippery slope, however, and one that the city ultimately has little control over.

“I have to rely on private investors to want to come in and want to spend their money to build a building or remodel a building,” Schave said. “I have no authority over private money in any way, so it’s difficult to say ‘we’re going to do this for the downtown.’”

Attracting private development is sure to get easier in the next few years, as the Aberdeen-Hoquiam Flood Protection Project finally begins to be realized. With significant funding in place, including nearly $10 million in federal funding announced in March, the project will protect against coastal flooding and bring more than 3,100 properties out of a flood plain. National Flood Insurance Program building codes and flood insurance regulations currently cost Aberdeen and Hoquiam residents more than $2 million in flood insurance a year.

The project is expected to be shovel ready in 2023, but the promise of lower insurance rates alone might not be enough to attract outside business to the downtown area, and should the issues plaguing downtown persist, the efforts may be too little, too late.

“The postcard of Aberdeen is downtown, and if you’re not willing to send that to your friends, you’re either ashamed or you come down and help out,” he said. “I still think there’s something to give here, and we’re working on those things.”

According to Russoul, a movie theater business recently considered moving into the downtown Aberdeen area, but ultimately abandoned the plan due to the uncertainty of local patronage.

“We feel that there’s been a lot of effort made here to bring people back to downtown and establish it as an actual community; it’s not just a place to shop, there’s people who know each other here and have relationships,” he said. “We’ve got to work with one another to reestablish our sense of place.”