During roundtable discussion, Lynnwood business owners voice concerns about future growth, pandemic recovery

Anna’s Home Furnishing owner Phong Nguyen voiced his concerns about Lynnwood’s future population growth at the March 17 business roundtable discussion.

Aiming to support the Lynnwood business community, the Lynnwood City Council Wednesday invited several local business owners to provide feedback on ways the city can help those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At its March 17 work session, the council held a remote business roundtable discussion during which 14 local business owners were asked to share their experiences. They also weighed the pros and cons of having a business in Lynnwood and shared how the pandemic has impacted them — and what the city could do to help them recover quickly.

“We are here to listen and hopefully, provide some action on what you think the city can do,” said Mayor Nicola Smith.

During the discussion, several business owners expressed many similar concerns. When asked to describe their best and worst experiences with the city, many cited the city’s permitting process as a major barrier. Around the Table Game Pub owner Nick Coelho said the permitting process for him three years ago was a “nightmare.”

In response to similar complaints, the city has been working to improve its permitting process, which led to the creation of the city’s Department of Development and Business Services (DBS). The new department combined city services previously provided by community development, economic development, the fire marshal’s office, and public works development services. 

Grocery Outlet Owner Colleen Studioso recently relocated her business from Lynnwood Square on 196th Street Southwest to the former QFC location on Highway 99 in north Lynnwood. According to Studioso, the permitting process was the easiest part about relocating.

Other issues identified during the March 17 roundtable included the city’s anticipated population growth and the impacts it could have on business. According to city staff, Lynnwood is projected to have a population of more than 60,700 residents by 2040.

Bindi Yoga Studio owner Susan Rennert said her business has been struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phong Nguyen, owner of Anna’s Home Furnishing, pointed out that the thousands of future Lynnwood residents would be looking for employment and said the city should be working to help businesses grow and create more jobs.

“People moving here are going to need jobs, but where are these thousands of jobs, going to come from,” he said.

Since business owners are already heavily taxed, Nguyen recommended the council eliminate the city-imposed head tax on business’ employees. According to Nguyen, the city is limiting its revenue potential by having a head tax and added that it was that same head tax that drove businesses out of downtown Seattle.

“We were being penalized for creating more jobs for the community and with less jobs, the city makes less sales tax revenue,” he said.

Another shared concern was regarding the city’s homeless population. Taqueria Puebla owner Adrian Ramirez said he has had to call the Lynnwood Police Department multiple times over issues with transient folks near his business. During one encounter, Ramirez said he was attacked by a man who thought Ramirez was stealing his bike.

“We’ve probably trespassed a dozen homeless people or so,” he said.

However, many of those attending praised the work of local law enforcement and emergency response. Six months ago, Best Lynnwood Inn owner Yun Song said his motel caught fire and the response was so swift and efficient that by the time he arrived on the scene, the situation was already under control.

“I was so grateful that I was (the) last person to be involved, and (greeted) them goodbye,” he said.

Business owners were also asked to share how the pandemic has impacted their business and suggest ways the city could help them recover. Bindi Yoga Studio owner Susan Rennert said she has been struggling over the past year. After non-essential businesses were ordered by the governor to close their doors, Rennert said she lost nearly 300 members. Just two months before the governor’s order, Rennert opened her second location. However, she said she has not been able to use it in a year. 

“I opened up in January, it closed in March and we never recovered it,” she said.

Additionally, Rennert said she doesn’t use most of her current space due to capacity limits. However, she added she’s worried that once she moves she won’t be able to afford to rent anywhere else.

Last year, the council unanimously approved allocating $800,000 of the city’s federal $1.18 million in CARES Act funding for a business relief program. By July, 80 business owners had received $10,000 relief grants each from the fund to cover business-related costs and expenses like rent, supplies and labor. The city then became a sub-recipient of funds from Snohomish County and granted another 23 businesses with $10,000 grants. The grants are viewed as mutually beneficial to the city and the business community, since more than 40% of Lynnwood’s general fund revenues come from retail sales tax. 

Last May, the council voted to temporarily eliminate the city’s permitting fees for special events until the end of 2020. Nguyen thanked the council for temporarily waiving the fees and said it allowed him to have a successful Labor Day weekend.

“As a result of our sale, the city received a nice boost and sales tax revenue for the month of September,” he said.

Grocery Outlet owner Colleen Studioso praised the city’s new permitting process.

While waiving fees helped some businesses, Coelho said it was a small gesture that got lost while many small business owners were struggling to keep their business running at the start of the pandemic. He recommended the city improve future communications with the business community.

“I don’t know what you can do at this point about that,” he said. “What’s done is done, but I think (the city needs) slower and more consistent messaging about what is going on in coordination with other agencies.”

Coelho also cited affordable housing as a top concern of his. According to Coelho, the cost of housing in Lynnwood makes it difficult for businesses to cultivate a reliable clientele if people keep getting priced out of the city.

“You know, growth is scary, (but) we’ve got to find a way to lower housing costs,” he said. “As much as I would like to just say ‘we need to have better jobs,’ we can’t forget that people who live on a lower income deserve a decent quality of life, too, and so I’d really like to see more aggressive stances on making housing more affordable.”

Also during the meeting, many said the city should encourage the community to buy from local businesses with incentives like coupons or advertisements in the city’s newsletter. Alisa Inouye, who owns Savory Spice located in Alderwood Mall, recommended the city offer vouchers similar to ones used in countries like Japan to help stimulate the local economy during an economic downturn.

Lynnwood Chamber of Commerce President Linda Jones suggested the city create a “welcome wagon” type campaign that greets new residents with coupons and deals to local businesses to incentivize them to shop local.

“What it does is it gets new residents out exploring their neighborhood,” she said.

While some said they were nervous about the future growth, Moonshine BBQ owner Tom Sprague said he looks forward to seeing what’s in store for the city and being one of the city’s businesses.

“If you have a business, all you can do is make sure your product is quality and consistent and that’s the only way you’re going to make it through,” he said.

–By Cody Sexton

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