Last Friday, Earvin "Magic" Johnson sits in a just-opened Starbucks store he helped bring to Rainier Valley's Columbia City neighborhood and grins. Wearing a light gray suit and sashaying his upper body to mimic the man on the street, the basketball legend says customers "are going to come here and say, 'Wow, yeaaaah, we got th' store.'" Not some second-rate store, he means, tailored for a neighborhood judged not white or yuppie enough.
The celebrity's involvement stems from a fifty-fifty joint venture his Johnson Development Corporation has formed with Starbucks to bring its stores to inner cities and communities underserved by retail.
The only complication is that lively Columbia City is not exactly an "inner city." A variety of businesses were here long before the coffee giant ever sniffed out the area, including a Somalian-run grocery store that was pushed out of the space Starbucks now occupies.
But nobody's talking about that today. Johnson and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have come to the store for an invitation-only open house. The goodwill is palpable. Johnson and Schultz both proclaim their desire to give predominantly minority communities the kind of major businesses that have always shunned them. "Our hope is that Starbucks can be a beacon for other retailers to come in," says Schultz, who also hints at unspecified philanthropy to come by promising to be a "great neighbor" in Columbia City.
Starbucks is also, of course, making a shrewd move into an untapped market. All it had to do was look at the movie theaters Johnson had already started in minority areas to know that such businesses could be wildly profitable. But it is a move that overcomes the biases that make corporate America more willing to invest in Third World countries than in the heart of their own cities. "There is no negative," says Michael Anderson, a black architect who lives in a largely black, middle-class, LA neighborhood where Magic's first Starbucks opened last year. "If more corporations did that, they would really capitalize on the market as well as revitalizing those [minority] areas. It's just like chemistry."
It's not quite that simple, however. A dirty little secret of economic development is that it often has casualties, namely the mom-and-pop stores that hang in there trying to improve a neighborhood, only to find that they are squeezed or priced out of the market when their success attracts bigger players.
In the case of Columbia City, a neighborhood renaissance has been underway fed by thriving community groups and newcomers who arrived looking for affordable homes. Some of the newcomers opened businesses, including Kate Gill's funky coffeehouse Lottie Motts. Other neighbors of the new Starbucks include the chic Sicilian cafe La Medusa and The Wellington, a plush tea room.
"We've all been working our tails off to change the perception of the neighborhood," says Darryl Smith of the Columbia City Revitalization Committee. "That's why Starbucks is coming in—not the other way around. They're not coming in to save our asses."
Many locals are rallying behind the coffeehouse that was here when times were tougher. "This is where I buy my coffee," asserts Pastor Nate Green Sr., as he steps up to the counter at Lottie Motts on the morning of the Starbucks soiree.
Yet no one is standing up for Ali Nur, the displaced Somalian. Green hazards a guess why. "Kate does a lot of business with everybody," he says of the Lottie Motts proprietor. "That other store, he did business with mainly their people."
Nur has a poignant story to tell, which he relates in accented English one morning after serving espresso to two customers at his new location a few blocks south of his old site. (Yes, he sells espresso too.) Wearing a purple polo shirt, glasses, and a ready smile, the 35-year-old says that he established Maka Mini Market and Halal Meat four years ago at what was then a "really, really rough" location.
But his business—almost an African style general store selling everything from leather sandals to meat slaughtered according to Muslim ritual— was successful enough to allow him to support an extended family back in Somalia as well as his two sons. "We don't live like Americans," he says. "I make something extra, I send back home—let them eat. That's a good life."
Business was so good, in fact, that he planned on opening a restaurant within the store. He invested in a divider to section off the eating area, kitchen equipment, and tables and chairs.
But six months before his lease was up, Nur says, the building's owner informed him that rent would be jumping from $1,200 to $1,700 a month. What's more, the landlord also said he intended to take back half the space. Feeling he had no choice, Nur says he reluctantly agreed to the new conditions, but then was told he couldn't have the space after all.
The owner, Frank Buchanan of Makensay Real Estate Services in Pioneer Square, declines to discuss details but says he was looking for a new tenant in order to "upgrade" the property.
Nur eventually found another location, but one slightly shabbier, further from the heart of Columbia City and too small for the restaurant he was planning. He lost about $6,000 he had invested in equipment for his restaurant expansion.
Johnson and Schultz take offense at being questioned about Nur. Schultz tells me, "I've been assured that that situation was resolved prior to our communication with the landlord. So, I almost feel like here we are in this wonderful setting trying to do such good things and you come here and ask a question like that."
Johnson, who had initially expressed a modicum of regret, pipes in: "We didn't have anything to do with that and you're pointing the finger like we did, and that's disappointing to the two of us."
But the day before, Johnson Development Corporation president Kenneth Lombard, a Seattle native, had offered a more thoughtful response. "Everybody wants to see the inner cities revitalize. It takes capital." He argues that improvements to the typically old buildings found in these areas cost money that developers must recoup from tenants. "We've got to try to figure out some way for smaller businesses to be able to participate more in this."
Despite such casualties, is Starbucks, ultimately, good for the neighborhood? Undoubtedly so. While a revival was already in progress, it was fragile. Now other retailers are already showing an interest here, including another big name coffee chain, which offered to buy out Lottie Motts.
Local resident Dawnmarie Cooper, for one, couldn't be happier. Having crashed the open house, she sits clutching a Magic Johnson figurine, a book entitled Inside Basketball, and an empty bag of "Magic Johnson Ruffles"—all of which she wanted the superstar to autograph.
But she is also pleased about not having to get in the car anymore when she wants to go to Starbucks. A few minutes earlier, she had asked to see the store manager. Unaware of her enthusiasm, everybody tensed up. As it turned out, all she wanted was to make sure the store had her favorite beans, from Zimbabwe, in stock.