While I was eating my way up and down MLK, I talked to some of the organizations dealing with the economic impact of blocked driveways and disappearing customers.
The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund has been issuing grants to businesses that can prove economic distress -- $50,000 to businesses that were forced to move, $30,000 to everyone else. According to Jaime Garcia, executive director, the fund's board voted on July 25 to raise the cap on grants to $50,000 for all businesses, not just those that relocated. Garcia says it's because the repaving work on the road is going to be more intensive than they expected, but I suspect the city and Sound Transit simply underestimated how bad the downturn would be.
Tiffany Crosby, manager of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, says that nonretail businesses are faring much better than restaurants and shops, which rely on walk-in customers. Two years into the construction, however, only a few restaurants have closed.
At the beginning of the year, Sound Transit launched a marketing campaign, "The World at Your Doorstep," which showcases MLK's ethnic diversity. It's showing up on billboards around Rainier Valley, brochures, and ads in cultural-community newspapers. If you can find a brochure, pick it up -- it has a great directory, with addresses and phone numbers. No word yet on how successful the campaign is.
Once the light-rail line opens, the businesses on MLK Way will have to adjust again, this time to the gentrification that's as inevitable as global warming. Sound Transit is already offering one-on-one consultation with business owners on a range of topics, such as using QuickBooks and attracting customers who come from other cultural backgrounds.
I'm guardedly optimistic about the MLK food scene -- gentrification could bring these great restaurants more cash but it could also destroy the strip's phenomenal ethnic diversity (or, worse, turn every restaurant that remains into a white-tablecloth place). That's why I'm determined to go back as much as I can in the next six months, damn the commute and the damage to my tires.