SEATTLE — "Optimism and opportunity" was the theme of this year’s State of Downtown address at the newly-expanded Seattle Convention Center.
The event comes as many downtown businesses continue to make a recovery since the pandemic hit, but as public safety remains a challenge three years after COVID-19 arrived.
“I have to make it safe," said Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. "With respect to downtown, we have to layer upon public safety.”
It's a point of concern after a year marked by a 23% increase in shooting deaths in the city of Seattle, with police force staffing at a 30-year low.
“In a city and in a country that’s been obsessed with certain issues: radioactive politics, abolishing police departments, defunding police departments," said Harrell. "We have to first reclaim the narrative, and we had to fix what were broken systems.”
Also of note, as the president of the Downtown Seattle Association pointed out, a historic fentanyl crisis.
"We’ve lost more individuals within the city of Seattle to overdose deaths than we did to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Think about that," said Jon Scholes, President of the Downtown Seattle Association. "And most of those overdose deaths right now are driven by fentanyl. We need urgent action on this crisis."
Harrell promised to make changes to improve public safety.
“There are significant laws that will be changed that we will push," he said.
He held back on providing specific details on what those law changes will be, though he did say this about his council: "I’m trying to help them communicate a little better amongst themselves. I mean, I understand, I was on the council for three terms. I get it. But I want to make sure I have the sufficient buyout from the council on some of the specific regulations and the laws that we think need to be changed."
He also vowed to spend more money on downtown, using private investments and capital. He promised more granular details on his plans in four to six weeks.
"So I will take my hits on being vague for a few more weeks until I figure this out, because I have a talented, committed administration," said Harrell.
More than 1,200 business and community leaders convened at the 18th annual event at a ballroom in the new $2 billion addition to the Seattle Convention Center.
The first month of 2023 marked the largest construction delivery in downtown’s history with the opening of the convention center's Summit building, adding 1.5 million square feet of space to the city center.
Scholes said he’s hopeful that the new center will be a catalyst for positive change-- especially when it comes to tourism in the neighborhood.
“Visitors are back, experiencing our unique cultural and entertainment offerings, and workers are steadily returning to the office," said Scholes. "But there is no single switch we can turn to get downtown firing on all cylinders again. We need everyone who cares about downtown to do their part – come see a show, visit a restaurant or get back to the office one more day a week."
According to the Downtown Seattle Association, nearly 130 new street-level businesses opened downtown in the past 12 months, and about 40% were dining establishments.
For more of the association's findings, visit this website.