Railroad redux: businesses harried by vagrants

   The owners of the 16,500-square- foot Champion Street Center at the corner of Champion and Railroad, which includes the former Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce space, has completed a $500,000 remodel to the site in an effort to attract new tenants. The improvements include a new building façade of stone and stucco, copper awnings, new windows and a fresh sheet rock interior.
   “It’s a great opportunity for retail,” said Saratoga Commercial Real Estate asset manager Joie LaBlond, who hopes to fill the remaining 12,000 square feet at $14 to $16 per square foot a month with new shop owners. Despite the upgrades to the building, there has been very little interest in the space to date.
   According to LaBlond, many new tenants shy away from taking the space because of the area’s popularity with vagrants.
   The problem, similar to that faced at the corner of E. Holly Street and Railroad Avenue in the past, started during the renovation and has continued since its completion, about three months ago, said Brian Haney, owner of Direct Copier Service, one of two tenants who remained open during the work. He said vagrants urinate on the building, sell and use drugs on the premises and last week broke a window in the vacant space.
   Although Haney said the problem doesn’t affect his business as much as others in the area, because he does most business where his customers work, the situation is a safety concern for employees in the area and is “totally unacceptable.”
The other remaining tenant, Otion, which sells soap-making supplies, saw a drop in business after the arrival of the loitering delinquents. In the months prior to renovation, Otion’s owner, Anne-Marie Faiola, said business was up 30 percent to 40 percent each month compared with last year. But after the vagrants began to gather, she said growth dropped to 5 percent to 10 percent. She estimated her business, now in its third year, was on track for 25 percent to 40 percent growth prior to renovations. According to Faiola, some customers drive up and are afraid to come in the store.
   To combat the situation, Saratoga and local merchants have pushed the city to clean up the corner. In response, the city agreed to install security cameras at the corner of Railroad and Champion and to step up patrols in the area, said LaBlond.
   Haney is skeptical the city will resolve the problem. Faiola is also frustrated and said minor penalties issued by police are not enough to keep vagrants away. She has requested to meet with the mayor on the issue, but received no response.
   Both Haney and LaBlond agree the delinquents may well disappear when a tenant moves into the corner space, deterring loitering. But Haney said the problem is not the business owner’s to fix, it is the city’s responsibility. And, if the corner doesn’t clean up soon, he said he will leave after 10 years at the location.
   The city will hold a public meeting regarding the issue on Monday, Oct. 31, at 8 a.m. in the downstairs meeting room at the Bellingham Public Library.

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