Donations dry up after rest stop’s ‘free coffee’ sign comes down

SMOKEY POINT — Free coffee flows at rest stops on I-5 near Smokey Point but the stream of donations to nonprofits that provide the liquid pick-me-up has dried up.

Volunteers say travelers aren’t aware they can get a cup of joe because a lighted “Free Coffee” sign went out awhile back and the state hasn’t — and won’t — fix it.

“The truckers look for (the sign). The drivers look for it. Now, nobody is interested in the coffee,” said Mary Davenport of Everett, who volunteers at the coffee kiosk for several different groups. “(The state) put it there. They should maintain it.”

The drop in coffee drinkers can add up to hundreds of dollars less in donations for churches, fraternal organizations, youth clubs, veteran groups and other nonprofits which sign up a year in advance for a tour of duty at two of the state’s busiest rest areas.

“We definitely noticed a difference,” said Linda Henson, co-founder of Harvest Vision Ministries in Sedro-Woolley. “It’s cut everybody’s donations about in half.”

It is not a situation exclusive to Smokey Point. Metal signs emblazoned with “Free Coffee” are no longer in use at the other 35 rest stops in Washington where urns of coffee are brewed up for weary travelers.

The state Department of Transportation removed the signs as a matter of safety. Officials said volunteers would go out at the beginning of a shift to flip open the “Free Coffee” sign to be visible to drivers then return to flip it closed when finished.

Because the signs are near the freeway exit, it meant the volunteers, many of whom are older, were walking close to the highway.

“Putting them in harm’s way is not a great idea from a safety standpoint,” said Steve Holloway, the transportation department’s operations and inventory manager for capital facilities. “We decided that we would no longer have those signs.”

Under the state-managed “Free Coffee” program, qualified nonprofit groups sign up to staff a kiosk a couple days at a time. They must be on-site for every hour they sign up for — including through the night. Groups are allowed to offer drinks and some snacks, like cookies or danishes, without charging. Donation cans are always nearby.

Smokey Point was the only place with lighted signs which volunteers could switch on and off from the kiosk. Those were installed about a decade ago for about $6,000, Holloway said.

The state considered, then ruled out, putting similar signs at every rest area. The idea was nixed because of the expense of installing and maintaining them.

A couple years ago the state determined as a matter of policy to remove the metal signs. At the time, it was decided to allow use of the electronic signs at Smokey Point until they broke down. That has now happened.

It’s not clear how much of an economic hit nonprofits have incurred at Smokey Point and elsewhere because groups do not report how much they collect in donations at the rest stops.

Henson said her group used to take in $500 to $600 on a weekday and in excess of a thousand dollars on a Saturday or Sunday. Now it’s more like $300 during the week and $500 on a weekend.

It may not be worth it, given the requirement that groups staff the kiosk for 24 hours without interruption.

“We’ve done this for a number of years. I don’t think I’ll go and sign up for next year,” she said.

Davenport, 68, said for one group she helps with the donations for Folgers she brews dropped from $1,000 in a summer weekend in 2013 to roughly $300 for the same period this year.

And Bob Duncan, president of the Everett Kiwanis Club for seniors, known as Golden K, said it’s one of the chapter’s best fundraisers. Or, at least it was.

“Donations have dropped off. I think the sign has a lot to do with it,” he said.

Holloway said he and members of his staff have talked with representatives of different nonprofits about the impact but had not heard any complaints.

The state definitely wants nonprofits there because they provide a service, but keeping volunteers safe and keeping costs down are the bigger concern, he said.

“We have recently heard from a few folks. We haven’t had any evidence from anyone that they lost money,” he said. “We definitely would take a look at it.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter:@dospueblos

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