Downtown Restaurant Closes, Asks, 'Did City Do Enough?'
by Kelsey Watts, KHQ Local News Anchor/Reporter - bio | email
SPOKANE, Wash – The doors are closing for the last time at Beignets Restaurant, only three months after they opened.
"I am angry. I'm very angry," owner Judie Sowards told KHQ. "I wanted the city to do a little bit more."
Sowards says the closure is because business fell off due to a group of people – sometimes more than 100 – who hang out outside her restaurant from morning to night. She says they yell and fight, cuss at each other, panhandle food and money from customers, and drive people to eat elsewhere.
Now, Sowards' 34 employees will have to go elsewhere.
"34 kids, my employees I had to let go who want jobs, because of the 106 kids that don't want jobs or don't want to work," Sowards said. "There's something wrong with that system."
But Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart says the city did quite a bit, and doesn't know what more it could have done.
"The minute I heard about it, I went down and visited her at Beignets, within a week we'd visited the site, the mayor had visited the site, I'd spent time at the site at night, we met with the police chief and we shifted resources," Stuckart told KHQ.
He said they upped patrols, and worked with the STA to utilize its security guards as well. Stuckart believes the restaurant's closure is more complex.
"We see a lot of restaurants come and go in Spokane, and I don't think that due to the loitering problem and the lack of city response is really a reasonable expectation that somebody could have as a business," he said. "I think there may have been other things at play."
When asked if he would support passing a new, tougher, ordinance to regulate the crowd, Stuckart said he doesn't think that's the answer – a permanent police presence downtown is.
"That really is the solution, it's not passing more laws, because you can have as many laws as you want, but if you don't have enough police you're not enforcing those laws," he explained.
Stuckart says he's already met with Spokane's new police chief, Frank Straub, about the issue, and says Straub supports moving more resources downtown.
But Judie Sowards is holding firm that her closure is directly linked to the sometimes-unsavory crowd.
"This was my dream, and unfortunately it's not here anymore," she added. "But I'm not going to give up on these kids, I'm not going to give up on this city, we need to do something about this."
Sowards says her new mission is to work with city councilors, police, and other businesses to find a permanent solution so that nobody else has to experience what she did.
The Downtown Spokane Partnership has been working actively with those groups as well, to try and find proactive solutions.
"Loitering itself isn't an issue downtown because of course we want people to stay downtown and be part of it," explained DSP Acting President Marla Nunberg. "It's when it becomes a larger crowd it becomes intimidating, no matter what the make up of the crowd."
Nunberg told KHQ the DSP has been meeting with city councilors, police, and local businesses, and that some arrests have been made recently for illegal activity in the area, but that downtown is safe overall.
"Let's really get to the root of it, do people need jobs? Do they need a recreation facility to go to? Do we need to designate certain smoking areas downtown? We're trying to be proactive so that we can actually work together for a solution so we can have a win-win situation," she said.
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