Should Enumclaw’s Cole Street remain closed on the weekends?
That’s the question being put to the city council later this month by several downtown businesses owners; some see the blocked-off street as a boon, maybe especially those that operate east of Griffin Avenue, while others say the new tradition is negatively affecting their customers — and bottom line.
The city began closing Cole Street on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the COVID pandemic in December 2020; the goal was to increase the street’s ambiance with fire pits while people ate at “streateries” — outside tents that restaurants used in order to continue to do business under state-set COVID mandates.
According to City Clerk Jessica Rose, the closures were only expected to last through January 2021, but Enumlcaw Park and Rec Director Alina Hibbs has continued to submit (and approve) permits for the streets to close; the most recent permit was submitted May 23, and does not appear to have an end date.
Diane Mills, owner of The Lee, has come down hard against the Cole Street closures.
“I hate it,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s hurting my business and it’s not the right thing for my community.”
Mills took over The Lee in 2011, but her family has run the historical establishment for 45 years; she said she has watched her current customers come eat at the restaurant since she was a kid.
But now many of her regulars no longer eat at The Lee — or even come downtown — on the weekends, in part due to the crowds and in other part the lack of parking.
“I’ve been raised with these people; I know who’s not coming,” she said, adding that “my customers built this town” and now they’re getting muscled out.
Mills also said that the people that are coming to town can be disrespectful, and she now has issues she’s never had to deal with before.
“They’re not local people breaking into my power boxes in my alley. They’re not local people that I have to padlock my bathrooms now… so they don’t come in and puke in them,” she said. “If you’re a real local person, you don’t want this stranger in town.”
On the whole, Mills added that she’s not opposed to “meaningful” events — for example, the summer-long Car Cruises on the first Friday of the month might not be her thing personally, but “if it helps everybody, I’m OK with that. But a meaningful event is not just closing the [street] down.”
Opposite Mills is Sean McDonald, owner of the Cole Street Brewery; his Cole Street business, he said, obviously benefits from the road closure, but he supports the weekend closures more for other businesses that rely on foot traffic.
“I am a destination,” he said, noting people will seek out Enumclaw breweries specifically, as opposed having to rely on passers-by. “On the flip side, I think the people that don’t have that opportunity, … those crafty shops, those shops work more on ‘I see it and I decide I want it right now’” benefit from the closures.
He says closing Cole Street forces people to park past Initial Avenue or near the Enumclaw library and walk past more businesses before they arrive at their destination than they would if they parked their car closer by.
If that walkability goes away, McDonald continued, those antique shops, boutique stores, and others would also cease.
“The good of the [few] does not outweigh the good of the many,” he said.
As a final point, McDonald said that he has also noticed some of his regulars no longer come to his brewery on the weekends, but they now come during the quieter weekdays, which helps him during the slower parts of the week.
With the goal of finding the quiet majority of locals, visitors, and business owners that support the Cole Street closures, McDonald and the Enumclaw Business Owners Collective have created a petition where people can indicate whether or not they support the closures. McDonald plans to present the petitions and the results to the Enumclaw City Council during the Sept. 24 meetings.
Some other Cole Street businesses — the Casting Iron, NW Motorsports, Dick’s Barber Shop, and the Dusty Shelf bookstore — signed a letter to the city council last May to request their section of Cole Street also be closed on the weekends, and Jillian Warren, owner of The Rainier, says her network of friends love to come downtown when the street is closed, not least because their younger children can run around and play some games while they wait for a seat at a restaurant.
But the attitudes from some other non-food service businesses range from ambivalent to negative.
Elizabeth Regan, owner of Not Your Basic Batch, said she’s a “fair weather” supporter of the closures, with no strong feelings either way. Her only note was that she wished the street would remain open during the rainiest, coldest months so people can park outside her shop, rather than have to walk from further away. (McDonald has said the road will remain open from January to March this winter for this very reason.)
But Joanna Clayton, one of the Basic Batch’s vendors, said that she, “as a consumer”, tends to avoid stopping in town when they see a street closure and would rather drive through.
Mills said she knows many other businesses that look unfavorably on the Cole Street closures.
“If I thought this was helping the majority of the people on Cole Street and I was just outvoted, that’s one thing,” she added. “But it’s not. Everyone I talk to, it’s not.”
It’s the same for McDonald, but on the other side of the aisle.
“I very rarely hear a negative,” he said.
COUNCIL CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Mills pointed out that Thomas Sauvageau, who is partner in several Enumclaw-area businesses — two of which are on or close to Cole Street — also serves on the Enumclaw City Council and specifically the Community Services Committee that advises on the weekly street closures to the full council.
“Nobody in the city seems to care,” she said.
But Sauvageau, who says he has little control or influence over the two businesses, says he’s advocated for limited street closures, not expanding them.
“To be candid, quite a few of the business owners on Cole street had a lot of positive input about the downtown closure. Not everyone, but a majority of the people I spoke with. That being said, most of the business owners agreed that they’d prefer to only see the closure happen when there were people downtown and that perhaps it was time to reassess the ‘policies’ for the weekend closures,” he wrote in an email to a Jeremiah Mills, Mills’ husband, adding that it appears the council and staff wants to limit closures to “special event permits only” and better define what a “special event” is. “I do believe that this will go a long ways in satisfying the need to address how to move forward with these downtown weekend closures that some parties would like to see happen indefinitely and some parties would like to limit, to some degree. I believe the common interest that most business owners and community members have is not having the street closed unnecessarily and when empty, which this would help to prevent.”
Additionally, in an email to the Courier-Herald, he wrote that “I continue to take the approach of being as transparent as possible to the City and letting City administration and council dictate any decision that I need to make to recuse myself.”