Nop Zay is desperately trying to keep the doors open at First Cup Coffee, which she has run for the past 12 years. Although it was lunchtime, the coffee stand, which also sells banh mi sandwiches and chicken-topped french fries, stood mostly empty over the course of our hour-long conversation.
“I didn’t even make $50,” said Zay as she counted the cash in her register. She had been open since 8 a.m. and had only served six customers at First Cup, which sits on the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Union Street. Some mornings, she told The Stranger, she can watch TV for an hour without a single customer coming in.
Zay’s experience is common among the businesses in the stripmall on the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Union Street since the Seattle Department of Transportation began a year-long street improvement project along the street earlier that year.
City officials made good on their promise to disburse around $650,000 of mitigation funds, pooled from federal Community Development Block Grants and funds from federal tax credit program, which is meant to encourage development in low-income areas. Less than 30 businesses along 23rd Ave. qualified for the grant, which was disbursed to businesses with five or fewer employees impacted by the construction. Five of the six businesses The Stranger spoke with received about $25,000.
But it just wasn’t enough. Now, nearly five months later, businesses are still struggling to stay afloat.
“$25,000 ain’t shit when you’ve lost $150,000,” said Sara Mae, owner of 701 Coffee on 23rd Avenue and Cherry Street.
Sara Mae, who preferred to not use her last name, said the grant money came with some restrictions, too. For example, she said, the money could go towards rent and inventory, but not to simple things like getting a new sign for her café.
“The [city] didn’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts,” said Sara Mae. Small businesses like 701 Coffee needed at least double what the city could offer them, she said.
Thanks to project delays and sidewalk closures, the road between 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street was gridlocked for months. Some business owners reported losing as much as 80 percent of their usual business, Heidi Groover reported in February.
Zay of First Cup Coffee said she received her $25,000 in April, but after paying off some of her business’ bills, the money ran out.
Zay, known to regulars as “Mama,” has nearly closed a handful of times since the construction began. She has been able to remain open thanks to rent extensions from her understanding landlords, she said.
“It’s so difficult for me. But I try to keep going,” she said. Zay said she used to complain to her two children about her aches and pains from standing in the coffee shop and cooking all day. But now, “if I could cook all day — no complaining!”
Despite having A-board signs pointing to First Cup from the sidewalk, her business still isn’t very visible from the street because her outdoor sign was painted over, said Zay. Like Sara Mae just four blocks away, she can’t afford a new sign when she’s not breaking even*, she said.
“I just hope I can get more customers so I can stay in business,” she said. “If I make at least $250 a day, we can pay for everything. ... Hopefully [neighbors] can come.”
Earl Lancaster, owner of barber shop Earl’s Cuts & Style, said life-long customers had stopped coming to his shop because of the maddening traffic. As a result, he lost about 30 percent of his business, he said.
“I get here at 7 a.m., but it’s just slower,” said Lancaster, who opened the shop in 1992. He runs the store with just two other employees.
William Gipson, one of Lancaster’s dedicated customers, has been getting his hair cut at the shop for decades. Even his 11-year-old son goes to Earl’s for haircuts, he said. The city’s construction isn’t just pushing out small businesses like Earl’s, but the Central District’s African-American community, too, said Gipson.
“The bus system is so jacked up now. It’s a cluster F-U-C-K,” said barber Jason Moore. He told The Stranger that cutting hair is his way of giving back to his community, but it’s hard to do that when people just drive right past the shop. The mitigation money, he said, “felt like hush money.”
The Central District businesses need more help than that, said Moore.
“The city can’t give money from the general fund,” said a representative from the city’s Office of Economic Development, which helped disburse the $650,000 mitigation fund. “These were federal dollars and it isn’t a renewable source.”
According to 99 Cents Plus convenience store-owner Saad Ali, thanks to the construction, residents in the swanky building across the street from the plaza and other newcomers don’t even know his store exists. Despite working seven days a week, open until close, business has still dropped significantly and he has a hard time paying the bills, many of which he has to request payment extensions.
“People need to know I’m here,” said Ali, an Ethiopian immigrant who has run the store for 14 years. “I’m not surviving. I need help. … I got three daughters. I got a mortgage. I work seven days a week, open to close — just to provide a better life [for my family],” he said.
*Want to help Nop Zay get a new sign? E-mail her here.