On bad days, Lawrence Pitre feels like he’s just rolling a rock up a hill. Like he’s not quite honoring the legacy of DeCharlene Williams who founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce Pitre now leads from an office in the DeCharlene’s Beauty Salon storefront on E Madison.
“There are days that I come in here and just want to close the door and go: ’Okay, DeCharlene (…) help me here. How am I supposed to do this?’” Pitre says. Before Williams died last year, Pitre promised her he would continue the chamber’s legacy of community-building in the Central District.
Though there are times Pitre feels small against the forces of displacement and gentrification of the CD, he has kept his promise. In April, DeCharlene’s Beauty Salon, and the neighboring office reopened after a renovation and chamber rebranding — the beginning of a new chapter.
The Central Area Chamber’s revival stands in stark contrast with the recent shuttering of the nearby Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce and its ambitious but unsuccessful effort to create an expanded business area.
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Since May, Pitre has been dropping into Central District businesses in the hopes of adding members to the dozen or so left from Williams’ reign. Pitre has added Uncle Ike’s, Angel City Deli, Kaji Tours, Lanier’s Fine Candy, Jimale Technical services, the not yet opened but contested New Seasons Market and others to the list already, but the work is slow, he says. As the CD’s demographics have shifted, so have its businesses. Pitre says the chamber has to “reintroduce” itself again. Another part of his job is to educate the newcomers about the longstanding history of the area, Pitre says.
Most of it, though, he says, “is trying to get the right people on the bus. And I don’t have a luxury liner bus. I have a short bus, and everybody has a helmet and a mouthpiece, [because] we never know [what] we’re going to run into.” The biggest roadblock: continued rising rents. Even the new businesses moving in can’t afford to stay for long, Pitre says.
The process is also slow because Pitre has been gearing up for Juneteenth, a celebration of freedom and the end of slavery in the United States organized by the chamber with the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, Northwest African American Museum and Africatown/Black Dot.
The formal festivities, planned for this Saturday and Sunday, June 15th and 16th, include a non-stop line-up of speakers such as City Council member Kshama Sawant and King County Council member Larry Gossett, both up for reelection, as well as poetry readings and performances by youth dance group Purple reign, NW Tap Connection, Katie Webster Quintet, Total Experience Gospel Choir, and others, plus art activities and food vendors.
This year marks the 36th edition of the celebration, the second one without Williams. She founded the Central Area Chamber of Commerce one year after she brought the celebration to Pratt Park.
In the beginning, Pitre says the chamber’s mission under Williams was about promoting business and combatting barriers like predatory lending, as well as a way for the African-American community to “sit at the table too.” Some of the same concerns have lasted through today, but now, local businesses’ biggest concern, says Pitre, is being priced out.
Though he appreciates equitable development projects like Liberty Bank and Africatown Plaza, Pitre sees them as band-aids on a deeper wound. “If we’re going to use these specific words, inclusion, equity, and other things, social justice, then we really need to use them in a format that actually allows these things to happen. I think we have to (have) a little broader view of this,” Pitre says.
That’s why he’s talking to the office of council member Sawant to organize businesses to support her push for commercial rent control. Pitre says he’s also hoping to find ways to help business owners buy their shops rather than having to lease them.
Pitre is also focused on developing a brochure and mobile app to lure downtown visitors to the CD by highlighting the area’s cultural vibrancy and plans to organize financial planning, marketing, and inventory control workshops for businesses.
Some of that might be up to his successor. Pitre says he hopes to find someone to take over his role as president of the board in 2020 so he can go back to his first love, arts, though he’ll stay involved as executive chair of the board. Most likely he’ll still have a hand in the chamber’s decision on whether the Central District will get its own Business Improvement Area, a funding mechanism for business district revitalization and management already in place in different neighborhoods.
The recently-shuttered Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce pulled back on its plan to expand its BIA (which would have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for street clean-up and merchant support) last year, after opposition from owners of smaller commercial buildings and homeowners associations.
Pitre is currently weighing the pros and cons of a BIA, he says. “I am not sold on either one,” he says but adds he wasn’t too keen on more clean-ups and policing. “I see street sweepers go up and down Madison all the time, and we don’t need any extra policing because we get enough here in the Central Area.”
It’s just one way in which the Central Area Chamber’s priorities are ranked somewhat differently than those of more explicitly pro-commerce chambers. Community comes first, Pitre believes. “That’s why the chamber was created in the first place,” Pitre says. “I’m using it as a vehicle to bring community back together.”
The CACC’s Juneteenth Celebration is June 16th and 17th at Pratt Park, 12 to 7 PM. More info on centralareachamberofcommerce.com/juneteenth-june/