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Exit interview: CHS talks with outgoing Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce leader Sierra Hansen

Were you as excited as Sierra Hansen when Capitol Hill Station opened in 2016?

It was only two years ago that the previous executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, Michael Wells, stepped down from his position as leader of the Hill’s chief business advocacy group. Now, his replacement, Sierra Hansen  has transitioned out of the role to head up the the planned-for-expansion Broadway Business Improvement Area on a six-month contract. The chamber’s director of external relations Mel Burchett is stepping up to manage the group. CHS sat down with Hansen to talk shop on a variety of Hill-specific issues and what she learned about the neighborhood during her tenure.

Why did you leave your position as executive director to take over the six month BIA contract? It was a natural time for me to step down. Part of the reason I was brought on board was to re-energize our membership services, really bring a strong membership focus back to the chamber, but also to work on the BIA expansion. In the expansion, I think we left it in a pretty strong place. We engaged new stakeholders that really were not as well organized, particularly in the Melrose area. The organization is kind of at this place where they really need to focus solely on the BIA … there was really nobody with the capacity in-house to do that work because they needed somebody to focus on the BIA expansion and Mel [the chamber’s director of external relations],who is continuing to do the membership and some operational stuff, just didn’t have the bandwidth so I proposed to them that I stay on board to manage the contract and it was a win-win for everybody.

I have remained on extremely friendly terms with the Board and with the staff; I mean, I’m managing the contract so clearly I was not run out of town. I continue to have a really strong relationship with them and I’ve told them that if there’s anything I can do to help with their work—now or in the future—to never hesitate to pick up the phone because I have such a love for this neighborhood and the members and I just feel so humbled and honored [to get to] represent this neighborhood in any kind of capacity. I got so many lovely notes when I announced my departure and I truly feel like I was there representative first.

What’s next for you? I was consulting before. I stepped into this role so I’m exploring a lot of different options … What am I going to be doing in six months? I can’t tell you. If you had asked me three years ago what I would’ve been doing in six months, I couldn’t tell you.

What was most challenging about your work at the chamber? Representing the Capitol Hill businesses, the nonprofits, the property owners, the residents and all the various stakeholders up here was one of the most exciting challenges and times of my career. Capitol Hill is amazing. We have approximately 700 to 800 businesses in the neighborhood … getting all of those voices engaged and aligned on issues wasn’t always easy, but there were a lot of times where we found a consensus that some thought we wouldn’t find consensus on. And that was the biggest challenge, was finding that consensus on issues like the streetcar expansion, people’s streets [the Pike/Pine pedestrian zone].

I think that as far as issues go, that [the pedestrian zone] was probably the most controversial issue I dealt with at the beginning … there was this implied fault line between the retail daytime folks and the night time [bar and nightlife] folks … I think that their needs are sometimes different, but they are more often aligned than they are different. One of the things that we need did really early on is I pulled together a group of all the various opinions on the matter and I said ‘ok, let’s talk about concerns with each other, let’s actually have a face to face conversation and not a comment thread on the blog or Facebook. Stop letting the city triangulate these conversations, let’s bring them back to the neighborhood and see if we can find consensus.’ It also gave us a chance to identify common goals and then we could turn around and advocate as a group with the city to ensure that we could achieve those common goals. Because I think everybody agreed that the common goals, that it [the zone] would have a positive or neutral economic impact in the area, and the second one was that it increases public safety particularly on nights when there was a perception that things were less safe.

In the end, one of the things that we asked the City to do was to actually terminate the Pike people’s streets earlier—and they refused to do it—because there was some really strong economic data that it was harming some businesses. We had asked them to reshape the footprint towards the end, and they refused to do that … There were some great things that came out of that pilot project and I think a lot of folks saw the value of activating the streets but they ultimately just said that ‘we want to see an organization take this on and have it be neighborhood driven versus SDOT [Seattle Department of Transportation] driven.’

But there was strong consensus around the recently debated employee head tax to pay for homeless services, yes? I don’t think I had one person call me and say what the hell are you guys doing. In fact, when the first head tax was voted down by the council, our members had managed all the council members or enough of them and they were cited as the reason why, at least one council member, voted against the initial head tax, because of the impact on small businesses.

What were some of your accomplishments? As far as successes go, I’m really proud of the work that we did to create a new and more engaged membership kind of event series. I’m really proud of the fact that, over the last two years, a lot of people, Hilloween is beloved by all. But I don’t think many people knew that that event was really underwritten to a large degree by the mitigation money that the chamber received from Sound Transit during the construction of the light rail. Because it makes sense, you do this big event, you bring a bunch of new eyes and faces to the neighborhood, people come in and they’re like ‘oh, that’s there’ and they come back a month later. So there’s a lot of economic development in things like that.

But when the Sound Transit mitigation money went away, there was a huge gap in the funding. So one of the things that I did was do a significant amount of fundraising to ensure that that event continued after we lost a significant sponsor. And I’m really proud of that because both neighborhood businesses and property owners and others, but then also we brought in outside money that had a vested interest in ensuring that neighborhood events like this continued. Hilloween could have very easily stopped happening and we kept it going and I’m really proud of that work. It was a good legacy for us to continue.

The third thing that I’m really proud of, when I stepped in, I got a hint of the controversy around the Saturday Pride street festival. I had no idea the craziness that that would represent in this neighborhood. But, fortunately, the city has processes in place where you can hold festival organizers accountable to being good stewards of the neighborhood and it became really clear that the historic organizer had, at the beginning, really did important work in keeping that event up here, but had become more and more disengaged from the businesses that should have been benefiting from and were being negatively impacted by the street festival. We worked really hard to both hold the organizer accountable, but also, more importantly, to engage the businesses. So when the city made the decision this year to a new organizer, it really did two things: first, it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for me going to special events committees and writing letters and engaging the historic organizers, asking them for more. They never ever ever showed any interest in doing anything other than complaining. We brought in a new organizer nine days before the event. The BIA wrote a pretty sizable check to ensure that it happened and a significant amount of outreach went into ensuring that we were counteracting inaccurate or negative information from the former historical organizers and we delivered pride flags to all the businesses on Broadway. And so suddenly, this new organizer comes in, and they did an amazing job. I’ve had businesses come in and tell me that it was their single highest grossing day in their history of operating in Capitol Hill. I had businesses come and tell me in the past that they basically shut their doors [during pride] who came back and said ‘actually we did really well that day. We were on par with an average Saturday instead of needing to shut our doors.’ And the new organizer of Pridefest is organized, effective, they’re efficient. They know how to do these things and they’re professional and they also care about the businesses in the neighborhood. I thought it was a win-win-win and when I started, people said that you could never get rid of the historical organizers. And, guess what: by holding people accountable to being good neighborhood stewards, we brought in a new organizer who did an amazing job and is going to be an event organizer for years to come.

What was the most surprising aspect of your work with the chamber? I think the most surprising part of this job was how incredibly engaged and thoughtful and just supportive members and non-members alike were of the work of the chamber. It was so amazing to just talk to people on the street and have them connect the work that we were doing at an advocacy level or just at a street cleaning level with the Broadway BIA and go ‘oh, that’s who is doing that work.’ People were really complimentary.

There was never a dull day. There were very few issues that we couldn’t find a path to engage on and when I say few I can’t think of one where there wasn’t eventually a path.

I just am continually surprised at the passion and the energy and the enthusiasm that the businesses and the organizations and the residents brought to making sure Capitol Hill continues to be the most amazing neighborhood in the city.

Will Capitol Hill’s business community get behind the idea of establishing a supervised consumption site in the neighborhoodMy understanding is that as this conversation continues, I understand that the city is reaching out to the current chamber board, which I’m really excited about, but I’m not a part of those conversations.

I can tell you that we now track, just on Broadway, we have our cleaning contract, and they pick up sharps [syringes], and I can tell you, when we started tracking sharps pick up, I just saw the numbers today, they’re not final for 2017, but in 2016 we picked up 300 sharps and in 2017 that number was up by 50%. We’ll probably pick up 500 sharps at least by the end of the year.

We clearly, everyone knows we’re in an opioid crisis, we see people on the streets who are openly using drugs and are passing out or getting overdose treatments in Cal Anderson Park, and it’s a tragedy. The flip side of that is that we have groups who do direct outreach to these folks and know the challenges involved in getting those folks off the drugs or into some kind of managed situation where they’re not as impactful. So from a business standpoint  or a resident standpoint, we’re an empathetic, caring neighborhood, but training your staff on how to clean up sharps in the bathroom is something that is also impactful to businesses and so one of the considerations that we took into account was that if you create a safe consumption site, can we minimize the impact of people using injection drugs in businesses or in the middle of the park. That was one of the conversations. [Locating the site] has become a big issue. Before he stepped out of the mayor’s office, Scott Lindsay and I met frequently to talk about the challenges around siting. Because of federal laws, my understanding is that it really impacts their ability to use private property for safe injection, but the ability to use public property or public rights of way for this would be pretty, it would be pretty controversial, and so, I think that, if the city goes through a process that is really really engaging of both near neighbors and broader community, and take it out of this ‘well, if you are opposed to this site, that must mean you are opposed to homeless people,’ if we can take it out of that conversation and make it about where is really the best place to put this, the best legal place to put this, where is the place that you can provide people with really important services while also not impacting things like schools and parks in a way that makes it really community driven and has a strong community conversation.

I personally saw a lot of value in having some type of safe consumption site on Capitol Hill if it was done well and if it was located in an appropriate place and then the outreach was done to get people out of the businesses and out of the parks and off the sidewalk.

There’s harm reduction from a drug user standpoint, and there’s also harm reduction from the businesses [standpoint], so I saw it as really having the potential to significantly reduce harm but also engage businesses on how they can also be mindful of some of the folks who are coming into their businesses who may impact their customers.

I thought, one of the more ironic parts about this job was I would always have sharps containers in the office or in my car because frequently people would ask for sharps containers. That’s just not something that was in my job description. But it made it really clear that this was a problem and so when you talk to business owners about ways you can minimize the impact on them, supervised consumption sites was an interesting option to explore.

What’s your take on Capitol Hill’s representative on the Seattle City Council, Kshama Sawant and who she engages with the local business community? I was skeptical of Sawant when she ran in 2013. And I think that skepticism has borne out in how she approaches the vast majority of stakeholders who should be engaged on any issue. I attended a luncheon with her that had been organized by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and I found her to be disengaged, disinterested, and really, very point blank she said things along the lines of she only represents small businesses, and she will defer to small businesses that are operated or run by women or people of color. And I found that to be incredibly dismissive because there are some really amazing businesses up on the Hill that doesn’t fit in her narrowly defined demographic that do amazing work. We reached out to her a couple of times on various random issues and she never responded. I’ve lived and worked in this city for over two decades. I’ve closely followed council politics for a decade more, more than that, and I have to say, it’s really disappointing that our neighborhood has such a huge number of challenges and to have a council member who is so unengaged in district level [issues]. And I know that there are some business owners who had really good relationships with her, but they are few and far between, for the most part … She’s not seen as somebody they can reach out to and help problem-solve on issues.

Small businesses get a lot of lip service from politicians. How are you feeling about Seattle’s new mayor and their relationship with the local business community? Over the last few years, Capitol Hill has been incredibly fortunate to have executive leadership that is engaged and informed and really concerned about the issues up here. Former Mayor Murray is a resident, he did a lot to help this neighborhood. One of the first things that we did when the primary was 21 people is we were approached by one primary candidate—one; we were approached by candidate now mayor Jenny Durkan. She approached us, she said I want to hear from you all, I’m talking to everyone around the city and you guys are a neighborhood chamber, you see a lot of challenges, I’m hearing individually from some of your members about a lot of challenges, and I want to sit down and have a robust conversation with you. Nobody else did that, nobody, out of 21 primary candidates, only one said ‘I want to sit down and hear your concerns,’ and we did. We had probably 20 people attend a meeting, we talked, Jenny listened, Mayor Durkan listened, and it was so refreshing to have somebody come and sit at a table and say what do you care about versus Sawant’s approach which has been ‘this is what I care about, get on board or I’m ignoring you.’

Building that relationship with now Mayor Durkan really early on, I think helped inform the small business advisory committee, the idea of creating a small business liaison within her staff, and looking at how we can take economic impacts to small businesses and look at that citywide. I think that the turning point in our relationship with her and her engagement on that issue—which I think resonate strongly with voters—were some of those early meetings.

My understanding is that one of the chamber board members and small business representatives from Elliot Bay, Tracey Taylor, is going to be on the committee, which is great and that, to have that kind of voice at the table is fantastic. So I’m really optimistic both that Mayor Durkan is going to be as engaged if not more engaged in the neighborhood issues as her predecessor was, and I’m really optimistic that she is going to take a fresh approach to find out how much we are looking at economic impact versus bike lanes and things like that.

Everyone says that [Jenny’s] the ‘same old establishment’. And it’s ironic because, honestly, the business voice is lost at council often and it’s lost when you start digging on issues like the 10 pm parking, it’s really lost. SDOT will go as far as to say ‘we don’t consider economic impact in our policies.’ That to me is short-sighted and it’s very limiting in the conversation that you have. So by setting out this agenda that says you will have a seat at this table and we will consider these things on par with the humans rights commission and things like that, it kind of gives you a seat at the table to be part of the discussion, not necessarily dominate or dictate the policies or dominate the discussion, but have a seat at the table, I think that’s really important.

And I haven’t seen a mayor engage like that for quite some time.

The chamber originally supported the proposed Broadway streetcar expansion, but then opposed it under your leadership. What drove the switch? The advocacy work [for the streetcar] had been done prior to my joining [the chamber]. As a concept, taking the streetcar up to Volunteer Park makes a lot of sense. I’ve been a huge booster of street cars. Few people know this, but in 2002 till 2005 I worked with Sound Transit and one of the things that I did was actually lead tours of the Tacoma street car which that had been created by Sound Transit and talk about the value of street cars in economic development. I am a firm believer in fixed rail, I am firm believer in street cars when you can deliver both economic development and healthy transit. I supported the South Lake Union streetcar, I think it’s been a huge boon for that neighborhood. And I supported the First Hill streetcar.

The challenge with the extension is when you go from concept to design, you start to really have hard questions about how we’re using the street. We looked at the design, we looked at the circulation, we looked at the mobility, we also looked at things as basic as, there’s a lot of panel trucks that are delivering supplies: food, booze, furniture, to Broadway and we don’t have alleys. Parking up here is challenged. 30-minute load zones are great but they’re not always accessible or sufficient for some of the bigger trucks and the turning lanes, I’ve come to call the turning lanes on Capitol Hill the de facto alleys. You’ll see UPS, SPD, any kind of paneled delivery truck parked in a turning lane.

So when we took all of those things into consideration, from a design standpoint and a mobility standpoint and an impact standpoint, the folks who had initially been very very supportive started to get very concerned about what would happen with their deliveries and their customers who did happen to drive up. There were a lot of hard conversations. And then we also looked at the number of turns that would be minimized and you look at how the south end is dealing with it and people were just like ‘this doesn’t feel like this is going to impact the flow of the area’ and the ridership is not going to replace what we’re seeing now.

The second big concern and challenge with the streetcar is when they put out the numbers; they had a grant that would cover about half the cost and the other ten to fifteen million would come from a local improvement district and when we saw the price tag for some of the buildings, and I’m not going to name names, there’s at least one big building up here that would have probably paid $1 million over a twenty year period and you can’t cost along that cost to your businesses if your businesses can’t get their deliveries and customers. It became a dollars conversation and a design conversation.

What are the Capitol Hill business community’s greatest needs and challenges going into the future? I think continuing to be in an urban environment and really juggle some of the urban challenges, particularly around our increasing homeless population and our substance using population. People just don’t think about what it’s like as a staff person working behind the counter of a coffee shop having somebody come in and pass out at a table, what’s that like? Or pass out in bathrooms after shooting up heroin. Those are concerns that are real issues.

I also think that as this city continues to grow and shape and change, we need to make sure that we don’t lose the things that make us a really amazing, vibrant, artistic neighborhood, funky neighborhood, small business neighborhood, and sometimes those things don’t happen by accident, you have to have a really strong, driven economic vision which is why I remain a very huge supporter of the BIA expansion because I think that would help that there is a strong and unified economic strategy and vision guiding what our neighborhood looks like from an arts and culture standpoint, from a queer standpoint, from a small business standpoint. So I do think there is a role and that’s why I remain very supportive.

I remember Capitol Hill in the mid-nineties and its very different today. But the rest of this city looks very different today than it did in the mid-nineties and change is going to happen one way or another and helping embrace and shape and direct that change to some degree is kind of the role of a business organization in a neighborhood like this.

And housing affordability, particularly for people in the service industry, that’s a huge nut to crack … Asking someone to make 15 bucks an hour and take a two-hour bus ride from SeaTac or Burien to work as a dishwasher or a barista, that’s a problem.


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