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Capitol Hill Business Alliance sets out to grow despite Seattle’s chamber backlash

Christina Arrington (Image: Capitol Hill Alliance)

With reporting by Tim Kukes

In a tumultuous week that brought what many see as a backlash against pro-business politics in Seattle, Capitol Hill’s new de facto chamber was a relatively calm, almost apolitical center of advocacy and information as it set about trying to represent the neighborhood’s small businesses — and grow its ranks.

At a Thursday night forum organized by GSBA and the new Capitol Hill Business Alliance, attendees visited tables at the neighborhood’s Union bar to learn more about “Capitol Hill Streetscapes” with representatives from the Seattle Department of Transportation, Lid I-5, the Melrose Promenade, the Capitol Hill Ecodistrict, and more.

“This community will be as strong as we make it,” the GSBA’s Louise Chernin said in remarks during the gathering. “I just want to tell you, if you need something done you need to call us, whether it is with the city, whether it is with the state, whether it with the county – whatever it is we want to get together, we want to get to know each other, we want to protest something, we want to stop something, we want to make sure something happens –- give us a call.”

That utility and advocacy are the main selling point for the newly formed Alliance, Christina Arrington tells CHS.

“We can be a voice for Capitol Hill business,” she says. “I want to do actual problem solving.”

CHS reported here on the October launch of the Alliance, a GSBA-backed small business resource and advocacy initiative formed in the wake of the neighborhood’s chamber of commerce closing down over dwindling finances and eroding support after a failed expansion effort. In May, CHS reported on the sudden closure of the Capitol Hill chamber as the nonprofit representing hundreds of neighborhood businesses cited financial difficulties for bringing an end to its advocacy and marketing efforts. In July, CHS took a deeper look at what brought down the chamber and found a failed attempt to create an expanded “Business Improvement Area” had sapped much of the remaining energy and resources of the group, plus more details of the downward trend in city funding, legal issues, and the loss of key people including director Egan Orion who left after four months to launch a City Council campaign.

As GSBA’s newly hired Business Development Manager for the Capitol Hill effort charged with helping launch and grow the effort by recruiting new members, Arrington says she is hearing a lot about recurring themes around “public safety” and business owners and managers wanting to be “part of the conversation” with City Hall.

“Small businesses are people, individuals,” she says, adding that her conversations with prospective new members are more about curiosity and optimism than she might have expected.

As for the politics, as a a 501c6 nonprofit, the GSBA and the Alliance could not chose not to endorse a candidate in the District 3 race. During the race, Chernin did say she believed Orion, a familiar face with GSBA through his work with the Broadway Business Improvement Association and PrideFest, had been miscast by “anybody who calls him the chamber candidate.” “I don’t see Egan as an arm of big business. Egan is so grassroots,” she said. But she added in a recent conversation with CHS that the GSBA’s relationship with District 3 incumbent and probable winner in this fall’s election Kshama Sawant is also positive. UPDATE: We’ve updated this portion of the report. As a 501 c6, “a status specific to business associations,” is legally allowed to endorse, a spokesperson tells CHS. “That said, it has always been GSBA’s own policy to remain nonpartisan in candidate elections and to refrain from endorsing even as we are active on issue advocacy.”

With Orion, it seems, set to continue with the BBIA and Sawant set for a third term on the council, the relatively progressive GSBA and its new Capitol Hill Alliance are well positioned for the politics ahead. But there will be challenges. Like the downtown chamber, the GSBA also opposed a head tax.

Even Thursday’s “streetscapes” gathering wasn’t shielded from the winds of the ballot box. SDOT head Sam Zimbabwe’s address to the crowd, in addition to touching on the expected small business worries about things like parking, also highlighted the new political reality for the city as it faces a major transit funding challenge and will sue over I-976 and $30 car tabs.

“We face a $32 million shortfall starting in December – an annual shortfall going forward – so we will reduce extending transit service,” Zimbabwe said Thursday. “It is also 90% of my pothole budget – filling potholes. These are things we are struggling with, for how we continue basic services. We’re fighting in court, we think we have a good chance to win, but we also know that we got really tough choices in that time and the city is expanding rapidly.”

Making sure Capitol Hill small businesses fit into that expansion is something the new Alliance hopes it can help make happen.

You can learn more at thegsba.org/CHBA.

CHS is a media sponsor of the new organization.


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