The Seattle City Council first started developing the program in 2017, when an effort spearheaded by council member Lisa Herbold budgeted $50,000 to study the issue of so-called “legacy businesses.” Council staff produced a study that year of what a legacy business might be, and ways the city might help them remain afloat.
The study defined a legacy business as one that has been open for at least 10 years and is small (10 or fewer employees), independent and serves as a community hub. A hub is considered a retail, restaurant or other environment where people gather. While someplace like the Central District’s Cappy’s Boxing Gym and Earl’s Cuts and Styles, or Capitol Hill’s Wildrose might qualify, something like a law office would not likely make the cut. It did not include nonprofits, since they would face a very different set of challenges. The study found that 1,162 businesses citywide might qualify for the designation using those standards.
This definition was only used for the purposes of the study. Changes would, obviously impact the number of potentially qualifying businesses. For example, if businesses needed to be open for 20 years instead of 10, the number of qualifying businesses would drop to 493.
All of this, however, is purely theoretical, as the city has not yet developed an official definition.
What they have developed is a series of potential ways to help these businesses. Simply handing the businesses money runs afoul of the state constitution, and so is out of the question. In fact, the study reports that there’s no easy way to help.
“This research implies that existing policy environment in Seattle lacks “low hanging fruit”—potential programs that are both easy to implement and likely to produce impactful outcomes for legacy businesses. Any new program must also fit within the legal framework in which the City of Seattle operates.”
Even without low-hanging fruit, there are some options.
One already in development is a toolkit to help businesses with commercial leases, said Michael Wells, a small business advocate with the Office of Economic Development (and former owner of Capitol Hill’s Bailey Coy books) during a May 14 meeting of the Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee, which Herbold chairs. This toolkit is not going to be designed as a way of advising business owners, but of educating them. It will be available in multiple languages, Wells said.
With that done, the city will move on to finding way to help with succession planning. Many times when legacy businesses close, it’s because the longtime owners are retiring (or have died). In many cases, they might be willing to sell or otherwise transfer the business, but lack the knowledge of how to do so. The city hopes to help provide them with this sort of planning, so the businesses might stay open.
The third kind of assistance will be with marketing and branding, and will be the next to be developed.
After these are in place, the city will decide on a process for allowing businesses to qualify. At the meeting, Herbold said it makes sense to have a program in place before opening it up to businesses.
“As I’ve been reminded by small businesses, they don’t just want another sticker in their window,” she said.
Much work on the program remains. First, the city will need to develop an official definition of a legacy business. From there, they will need to develop a nomination process.
Wells said they’d likely start with looking for nominations from community groups and local business groups, since community members of the various neighborhoods will better know which businesses are important.
Herbold agreed, saying they should find a way to give some kind of voice to the patrons of the business.
Then the city must designate some group to make the final decision on which businesses will qualify. Wells suggested some alternatives could include the mayor’s Small Business Advisory Council, the City Council, or even the mayor’s office.
How much longer must the city’s small businesses hold on before some sort of solution is in place? It could be a while. The timeline for when these next steps might take place is still not clear.
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