It’s no secret that Seattle is a great place to visit. Last year, nearly 10 million travelers spent a total of $5.9 billion in Seattle and King County, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. According to the United States Department of Commerce, Seattle and Washington state have led the nation over the past two years in growth of visitors from overseas markets.
As the tourism industry recovers from the recession, Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO Tom Norwalk recently announced that our region is “well positioned for growth and may very well outpace many other destinations and the U.S. as a whole.”
His optimism is well-founded. The State Convention Center has already booked 308,322 reservations for 2013, compared with 262,881 reservations for 2012. A hotel industry trade association predicts that 2013 will be “a record-breaking year” for Seattle tourism.
Even the Downtown Seattle Association says things are looking up. In a June press release, association officials reported that instances of alcohol activity observed by downtown ambassadors in 2011 fell by 29 percent compared with 2010. Panhandling and public urination were down from the previous year as well, by 24 percent and 35 percent respectively.
City Councilmember Bruce Harrell noted before the city council last month that there have been only 28 arrests for aggressive panhandling since January 2010, and more than half of these were successfully prosecuted under existing law.
One might be forgiven for thinking we have a rather attractive little city here.
But according to Norwalk of the visitors bureau and a group of supporters in the tourism, hotel and retail industries, a crisis exists in our streets. “Seattle’s downtown visitor experience,” bureau members wrote to city and county officials in an email that was quoted in The Seattle Times, “has reached a tipping point. Public and private spaces are threatened and impacted by rampant drug dealing, aggressive solicitation and behavior, and individuals battling mental illness and engaging in drug activity.” They want new policy tools to clean up the downtown, with more police, citations and prosecutions.
Thus far, the evidence produced by their “See It, Send It” media campaign has been a bit underwhelming. A photo of a beggar in a wheelchair holding a sign. An alleged drug dealer standing outside a hotel. Some dogs tied to a tree next to a few bags. Litter spilled on the sidewalk after a big bar night. A testimonial from a Four Seasons patron complaining of “crackheads” near her hotel and the smell of urine.
It seems to me that “See It, Send It” is a solution in search of a problem, and that the tourism industry is the one looking for the handout. This is what corporations do: maximize profits by making the public subsidize their business model. In this case, a sanitized streetscape means a bigger bottom line for luxury hotels, cruise ships and high-end retailers, so government is supposed to hop to and deliver the cops and laws to make the visible poor disappear.
The sad thing here is that while the visitors bureau busily manufactures their greedy little crisis, there are real problems to be solved. Seattle has an acute shortage of affordable housing. We desperately need daytime drop-in centers and more emergency shelter for the homeless. We need better alternatives for drug and alcohol treatment. We need more accessible services for the mentally ill. These are the things that would make Seattle a better city. A more beautiful city. A city to make us proud.