Non-profit says pandemic’s economic impact in downtown Olympia not reflected in empty store fronts

The pandemic forced the closure of businesses across Puget Sound, some of them likely being one of your favorite restaurants, bars or hair salons. But many that did survive find themselves surrounded by the ghosts of those which did not. 

Storefronts along Olympia’s 4th Avenue display ‘for lease’ signs more so than in the recent past, but a South Sound non-profit insists business casualties of the pandemic fared better than what once was anticipated.

Loren Meyers knew the historic artesian well in downtown Olympia was a must-visit to help introduce a northwest staple to his bride Hanah. 

"We’re married," the couple announced in unison. 

The flowing waters from artesian wells across the city spring life into the South Sound and have for generations 

"It seems like a sense of community, that anyone can come," said Loren. "It’s free and open to all."

But a chain link fence surrounds the space next door to the well. Several businesses along the same block post signage advertising leasing opportunities that were not part of the downtown scene more than a year ago. The Meyer’s say it’s not exactly a warm welcome. 

"Having a park around it would add a little bit more maybe," Loren added. 

"Not everybody came back," Well 80’s Chris Knudson told Q13 News. 

His brewery opened in 2018 and the beers are born of an artesian well all their own. Most of his employees have since returned since the pandemic forced shutdowns, but the toll for neighboring businesses has proven harder.

"It was just a ghost town," he said. "We were doing to-go but there were no cars down here."

In some ways, it still looks like a ghost town along 4th Avenue as storefront after another are empty. But, the Olympia Downtown Alliance says what at first blush appears to be large numbers of failed businesses is not representative of the economic reality in Olympia.

Thanks to faithful customers, creative business owners and government assistance, ODA says only 4% of the downtown core’s nearly 450 businesses closed their doors since the beginning of the pandemic. Plus, as development swells in the city, Knudson reamains positive and soon new businesses will fill the vacancies that have left 4th Avenue looking empty.

"I would not have picked 4th Avenue if we did not think there would be some serious potential here," he said. 

And if Olympia’s past successes have anything to do with its future, the source of their hope is in the water. 

"I filled up my water bottle in a shower last night," said Hanna Meyers. "We can only really go up from here."

This week features the third installment of ‘Shop & Dine Week,’ a program initiated by the Olympia Downtown Alliance. Their goal is to encourage customers to visit local businesses for a chance to win swag and patronize shops reliant on repeat, local customers. 

Though, if the pandemic finally behaves, ODA is planning block parties with food and drink and live music in July. It’s a chance for the community to celebrate their collective resilience over what so many were forced to endure alone.

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