Last year, Light Rail opened to great fanfare at Othello Station. A coalition of neighborhood groups, including the Martin Luther King Business Association (MLKBA), organized the Othello On The Move festival to celebrate the long-awaited launch of Sound Transit’s Light Rail passenger services on July 18, 2009.
In the many months preceding July 1818, the MLKBA reached out to businesses along the four-mile MLK corridor from the intersection of Rainier Ave and MLK down to Rainier Beach to help prepare them for new clientele that everyone hoped and expected the Light Rail would bring to this business district, which had stagnated during the years of Light Rail construction.
Lan Do opened Venus Chinese Restaurant in King Plaza, the shopping center just west of the Othello station, in February 2009. In an informal interview last June with the MLKBA, she expressed great hope that the train would bring even more business. At that time, her new restaurant was thriving.
But many businesses did not see an uptick in revenues and market. Introducing a faster mode of transit into the Rainier Valley could not offset the recession from which we are all still suffering.
In the subsequent months, other problems arose. There was an increased demand for limited parking, increased noise pollution and traffic, and, in many cases, a decline in business.
Lan Do said she has witnessed a 30 percent decrease in business. Time restrictions on already limited parking deterred customers. She has not tracked how many new customers come by Light Rail, though she suspects few.
When the Light Rail was extended fully to Seatac airport in December, it only increased the number of people who whizzed by Light Rail stations along MLK. Mt. Baker, Othello, Rainier Beach, and, to a lesser degree, Columbia City, have become faint impressions of commuter stops along MLK.
If anything, the disappointment with Light Rail that ensued among local business owners helped bring to the surface other problems this business district must face in order to weather the recession and to fully take advantage of the Light Rail when its ridership numbers do reach full capacity.
The rest of Seattle has often overlooked the south end.
A 2009 survey by the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund counted 234 businesses along the MLK corridor between Henderson at the south and Rainier Ave at the north. Eighty-seven percent of these were listed as locally-owned, independent businesses. Despite this high concentration, the Stranger’s 2009 Buy Local Guide did not include any business districts south of Georgetown.
This means small businesses here have to work even harder to attract shoppers from outside the Rainier Valley.
The MLKBA works to educate local consumers about the range of products and services available to them in business districts along MLK. One way we do this is through our signature guided walking tour, where residents visit MLK businesses.
Fortunately, the people living and working here are used to adversity. Many business owners are immigrants and refugees. More than 10 races and ethnicities are represented in our business district, including African American, Cambodian, Chinese, Hispanic, Filipino, Korean, Cham, Laotian, Malaysian, Mexican, Somali, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and White.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom our corridor is named, once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Though disappointed, we have not lost hope. In the year since Light Rail opened, AOL News named the zip code which covers much of Rainier Valley as one of the most diverse pockets of America. MLKBA members display window decals that proclaim, “Think Global, Buy Local.”
In time, we know the Light Rail will bring people from other parts of Seattle who will want to sample delicious foods from afar and explore our rich cultures. The newly launched www.SouthendSeattle.com blog depicts an image of the Light Rail cutting through the Rainier Valley. In one short year, the Light Rail has become part of how we in the south end see ourselves. Whether we like it or not, we know we have to live with the train.
With the initial excitement over Light Rail having died, we can now refocus our efforts on strengthening our businesses and marketing our district as a whole.
And continue to show the rest of Seattle why they should take the Light Rail down to visit us.