EVERETT — On a recent summer’s afternoon, First Street in Snohomish teemed with shoppers and moms and dads pushing strollers. Sidewalk gazers lounged at outdoor tables. Parents, comfortable with letting the older kids roam, enjoyed a breather. Inside the shops, cash registers rang up sale after sale.
In downtown Everett that same day, a much different story. The lunch crowd had scattered. The people-watching quotient was poor.
Everett’s central business district has struggled for decades.
The nonprofit Downtown Everett Association and the city have tried to breathe new life into the city’s core with new events, festivals and funding sources. Empty storefronts, homelessness, vandalism and a drop in foot traffic — in part a casualty of the pandemic — are taxing their efforts.
Still, a clutch of merchants are encouraged by an emerging arts and pop culture scene. Property owners and shopkeepers willing to roll up their sleeves are enamored with downtown’s historic buildings. Behind brick walls and beneath concrete and chicken wire, they’ve uncovered carved wooden bars and hardwood floors.
“What I like about Everett is that my business neighbors are not waiting for Everett to pop, we are making it pop,” said Tom Harrison, owner of MyMyToyStore, which opened a year ago at 1806 Hewitt Ave.
However, it’s hard not to compare Everett’s business district with the lively downtowns in Snohomish, Edmonds and Langley. Everett can sometimes appear downright deserted.
“It’s not like La Conner or Snohomish, everything is spread out,” said Jana Soriano-Demarais, owner of Jana’s Favorite Finds, a home goods store at 2609 Colby Ave. in Everett.
Snohomish County’s smaller cities enjoy close-knit retail corridors.
By contrast, Everett’s stores and restaurants fan across downtown, a 40-block area. No single street serves as a retail corridor. Colby Avenue might be the strongest contender but significant pockets of retail dot Wetmore, Rucker, Hewitt and Grand avenues — not to mention Broadway.
“There’s no excuse for Everett not to be successful — this is the largest city in Snohomish County,” said Holly Burkett-Pohland, owner of Burkett’s Savvy Clothing, a 44-year-old business at 2617 Colby Ave. founded by her late mother. Her optimism for the city led her to open a new shop this year, Burkett’s Home & Gift Store, at 2615 Colby Ave.
“People want to shop local. We need to give them several reasons to come down here, not just my store but other stores,” Burkett-Pohland said. “Downtown needs a men’s store, more gift shops, more clothing stores.”
Her retail neighbors couldn’t agree more. Merchants envision more sales, while city officials anticipate greater sales tax revenues.
“We need more shops,” said Soriano-Demarais standing in the doorway of Jana’s and looking across the street at a row of empty storefronts.
‘I lock my doors now’
Everett’s sprawling configuration wasn’t an impediment in the past. Until the mid-1970s, downtown was abuzz, said Mandi Sexton, manager of J & L BBQ at 2915 Colby Ave.
Shoppers had their choice of The Bon Marche, J.C. Penney, Woolworth’s, Sears, Nordstrom, office supply and bookseller J.K. Gill, and a raft of independent stores, Sexton said.
When the mall opened in 1974, the crowds dwindled. Major retailers moved to the mall or closed, leaving empty storefronts.
“The town kind of died. Everyone left by about 1984,” Lorrie Bunney, owner of Everett’s Vintage Cafe, told The Daily Herald in 2019.
More than 40 years later, downtown’s reputation still suffers.
“I don’t think of downtown as a place to shop,” said 26-year-old Sarah Larsen, who grew up in Everett and lives here still.
Larsen’s and her husband’s downtown trips are limited to a few festivals, Silvertips hockey games at Angel of the Winds Arena, and dinner beforehand at a restaurant, she said.
Some of the biggest downtown attractions are seasonal: the Farmers Market, Sorticulture, Fresh Paint and the new Everett 3-on-3 basketball tournament.
But the constant presence of people struggling with mental illness, addiction, homelessness or some combination of all three poses a challenge for shopkeepers and visitors.
“They’ve broken out our windows,” said Moris Malouf, manager of the Pho Ha restaurant at 2930 Colby Ave. “There’s drug paraphernalia on our back porch.”
Across the street, the manager of J & L BBQ said she fears panhandlers are driving some customers away.
“You can’t get out of here at night without being hounded. People can’t bring their kids or grandkids down here,” Sexton lamented. “There are people shooting up in the doorway at night. The opiate problem is a big thing.”
Nancy Erickson, the owner of Erickson’s Jewelers at 2625 Colby Ave., has begun locking the doors to her shop at all times.
“We’ve had windows broken, doors broken,” said Erickson, who said she has spent $3,000 to replace windows in her store.
“I lock my doors now. I never did that until five years ago,” said Erickson, in business for 25 years.
“The last six months to a year has been bad,” she said. “The festivals are great, the basketball tournament was great, but homelessness and drugs are a problem. It’s a problem in every city.”
Bill Oehlsen, manager of Katie’s Fine Jewelry, in the Key Bank Building at 2707 Colby, also locks the door.
“I’ve seen a correlation between increased homelessness on Colby and decreased business,” Oehlsen said. “They bang on the door and sleep in the building alcove. A lot of mentally ill people are out there screaming and yelling and making threats to people. Three years ago they weren’t here. We’ve been here 17 years. We would love for things to pick up.”
Crystal Walls, who works at Abbey Carpet & Floor at 2601 Colby Ave, is constantly “shooing away people,” she said.
“We watch them do their drug deals on the corner,” Walls said. “Sometimes customers don’t want to come into the store. They sit in their cars and want us to go out there. People are afraid to come down here.”
Downtown visitors are sometimes startled by erratic behavior, nudity and threatening gestures.
“We’ve got some screamers that scare people. They’re out they’re yelling obscenities. That scares mothers and children,” said Bryan McClimans, owner of Second Chance Antiques & Furniture at 1307 Hewitt Ave. On the plus side, he said, “the police are very responsive.”
A point-in-time survey this year revealed that the county’s homeless population is at a 10-year high. In total, 1,184 people were counted, a 43% increase from the county’s low point in 2015 and an increase of 52 people since the count in 2020.
In February 2021, the Everett City Council approved a law that criminalizes sitting or lying on streets and sidewalks in a 10-block area east of Broadway near downtown.
The no-sit, no-lie boundary stretches from 41st Street to Pacific Avenue near I-5, and includes Everett Station and the Everett Gospel Mission, but doesn’t cover the central business district.
More housing, from Pallet villages to converted hotel rooms, is in the offing for Everett and the county.
County officials plan to boost the number of transitional housing units by 129, with the purchase of two hotels near Everett Mall and Edmonds. Housing at the two hotels could open this winter, increasing the county’s shelter capacity by 20%.
Downtown has much to offer from the Schack Art Center to the Everett Historic Theatre and the Imagine Children’s Museum, which has opened a new wing, said Dan Eernissee, the city’s economic development director.
The city’s problems aren’t unique, Eernissee said.
“Every city can share similar stories about homelessness and addiction,” he said.
A new public safety coalition, Mayors and Business Leaders for Public Safety, aims to address mental health and homelessness challenges, which it considers “primary drivers” behind a purported increase in crime. Formed earlier this month, Mayor Cassie Franklin is among 15 mayors in the county that have signed on.
The coalition, Eernissee said, “is at the heart of what really needs to happen” in downtown and beyond.
‘Want to see downtown grow’
Cassandra Bell, the new owner of Cassandra’s Closet at 2723 Colby Ave., isn’t fazed by downtown’s shortcomings.
“You’d be hard pressed to find an area that doesn’t have a homeless population,” Bell said.
The boutique, which sells new and used clothing, opened Oct. 15. in space formerly occupied by a dry cleaners.
“The Everett Downtown Association has gotten together in the last two to three months to address the homeless issue,” said Burkett-Pohland, of the women’s boutique. “It’s a nationwide problem, but it’s gotten better on this block,” she said of the stretch from 26th Street and Everett Avenue.
Liz Stenning, the downtown association’s new director, said members formed a new task force this year focused on public safety. They meet regularly with the police department — one or two times a month, allowing them to “share their concerns more directly,” Stenning said.
The association’s founding dates to the 1990s when “weeds sprouted from cracks in the sidewalk, graffiti marred building walls, and trash containers overflowed. Unless a solution could be found, downtown’s future was threatened,” organizers said.
Today, the nonprofit employs 12 people. The group’s $800,000 annual budget is funded by downtown property owners. The money pays for downtown’s colorful banners, year-round events, holiday lighting and a five-person cleaning crew that sets out each day at 4:30 a.m. to pick up trash and remove graffiti.
In 2020, the association took over the city’s flower program, a casualty of city budget cuts.
Last year, the group became a member of Washington Main Street, part of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Eligibility requires that half of a downtown’s buildings must be over 50 years old.
“Everett has about 80%,” Stenning said.
The state program, administered by the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, offers a 75% Business & Occupation or Public Utility tax credit to businesses that contribute to Washington Main Street communities. Businesses can request that their contributions go to the Downtown Everett Association.
“People are hungry to shop local. They want to see downtown grow,” Stenning said.
Bell, owner of Cassandra’s Closet, is impressed with the retail community’s support.
“So many have stopped by to introduce themselves,” Bell said.
Harrison, the owner of MyMyToyStore on Hewitt, acknowledges the flaws, “but nothing that’s unexpected for operating any downtown store.”
McClimans, owner of Second Chance Antiques, applauds the city’s beefed-up events schedule, but wants officials to give merchants advance notice.
“They need to let us know when they’re going to close streets for an event or festival — maybe I have a sidewalk sale that day. Send us an email!” McClimans said.
At Pops Skate Shop, which opened at 2826 Rucker in 2021, co-owner Ben Corey said the city is moving in the right direction with its support of festivals and events. The Rucker Renewal Project, aimed at making the street more pedestrian-friendly, is paying dividends.
“It’s slowed the cars and made it more walkable,” Corey said. “More people are riding bikes and walking.”
‘Bullish on Everett’
In the past three years or so, developers have added more than 500 new apartment units to the Everett’s downtown and waterfront. They include Waterfront Place, Kinect @ Broadway and The Marquee.
Move-ins are set to begin in November at The Nimbus, a new 165-unit apartment development at 2701 Rockefeller.
Andrew Skotdal, president of Skotdal Real Estate’s commercial and industrial division, posits density as the key to downtown’s revival. The company is a major property owner in Everett.
“The thing that will make the biggest difference is density,” Skotdal said. “Everybody seems to discount or forget that Everett is on a peninsula and most businesses look at the 5-mile radius around them before deciding to open. The 5-mile radius around Everett is farmland and water.”
With more downtown-area residents, those empty storefronts will fill up with businesses that rely on foot traffic for sales.
“We are encouraging the city to do more multi-family development in downtown. We are still bullish on Everett. We are still looking for ways to do another residential project,” said Skotdal, whose company has completed four apartment buildings in downtown Everett in the past 20 years.
Eernissee, Everett’s economic development director, also champions density.
“The only fix long-term is to add more jobs, more people,” Eernissee said.
He estimates another 2,000 to 3,000 homes in the downtown area are needed to make a real difference. With the current demand, that growth might not be far off.
Still, some wonder if the old adage that retail follows rooftops is still relevant.
“There’s all kinds of apartments down here, but they’re not shopping downtown,” said Soriano-Demarais, owner of Jana’s.
Shopping habits have changed. The spectacular growth of e-commerce has taken a big chunk out of traditional brick-and-mortar stores that may never return, she said.
Before the pandemic, downtown’s daytime population reportedly swelled by thousands of people a day.
In a blow for stores and restaurants, the number plummeted in 2020. Renee’s Contemporary Clothing at 282o Colby Ave. closed after 29 years.
“It felt a little lonely along here,” co-owner Sue Nemo told The Daily Herald. Lacking a drive-thru window, the Starbucks across the street from Renee’s closed. The popular gathering spot had been in business for more than 20 years.
“People aren’t working downtown, so they’re not shopping, not eating here, not buying clothes for work,” Soriano-Demarais said.
The Cakewalk at 2934 Colby felt the drop-off.
“Daytime traffic was good for us,” owner Johanna Rogers said.
A walk-in favorite, the bakery sold cupcakes and cookies before the pandemic struck. With fewer folks on the street, the business was forced to change its format.
“We switched to only custom orders,” Rogers said. “There’s just not as much lunch time traffic.”
There are some signs of a return to normalcy.
Two prominent spaces on the corners of Colby and Hewitt avenues have been leased and should be occupied by spring: Pioneer Place at 2822 Colby, vacant since 2016, and the former Union Bank, empty for a year on the other of the street at 2831 Colby.
Both offices “will be staffed by a meaningful presence,” Skotdal said.
Skotdal didn’t disclose the name of the new Pioneer Place tenant, but Eernisee did. It’s Kimley-Horn, a civil engineering firm leading Sound Transit’s Everett Link extension.
Everett city workers are being summoned back to the office, Eernissee said. Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin “believes it’s good for the city to have people back in the office,” he said.
“I feel like Everett is inching toward how it was before the pandemic,” said Elyssa Wallgren, manager of The Loft Coffee Bar at 1309 Hewitt.
When customer counts fell, the cafe scaled back business hours, closing at 3 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. Now, there’s hope, she said, that the espresso machine will be dispensing shots later in the day.
A dozen new shops and restaurants, including MyMyToyStore, Northwest Artisans, Petrikor, Chai Cupboard, Cassandra’s Closet, Salish Sea Ceramic Studio and Urban Yogis have opened in the past two years.
Longtime business owner Burkett-Pohland is encouraged by the influx.
“This town is beautiful. There’s a lot of positive energy. It’s better than ever,” she said.
Aaron Scheckler, co-owner of Petrikor, a new home goods store that opened in May at 2816 Rucker, views downtown Everett as a hidden gem, reminiscent of some of Seattle’s popular neighborhoods when they were up-and-coming.
“People are reminded of stores in Fremont and Ballard,” Scheckler said.
Scheckler and his partner, Scott Hulme, worked with the landlord to turn their storefront, a former hardware store and house of ill repute, into a showpiece. Peeling back layers of concrete and chicken wire, they restored century-old hardwood floors and exposed rustic brick walls.
Like other merchants who moved here from Seattle or other big cities, they are energized by the city’s historic vibe — and what the future might hold.
“People are thirsty for more retail,” Scheckler said. “People are saying, ‘Finally more retail in Everett.’”