On November 15, Rainier Valley leaders met up with Mayor Greg Nickels at the Rainier Community Center on 38th Avenue South. After six months of drafting a revitalization agenda, the residents were ready to give Nickels their neighborhood wish list: more business and jobs, better public safety and education, more development and art. In short, "We want to improve the economic and social climate," says Rainier Chamber of Commerce President (and former city council candidate) Darryl Smith, who helped draft the agenda. Folks like Smith think the process will be worth it: Coordinated effort between neighbors and the city may be able to reverse what he calls "disinvestment" in Rainier Valley for the past 30 years.

At least that's what Smith thought until later that month, when he and neighbors discovered that the city pledged a $250,000 relocation grant to CASA Latina, a Belltown-based social-service organization that assists migrant workers with everything from landing day labor to learning English. The pledged money (available in 2006 if CASA Latina meets a few conditions) spurred the agency to put a bid on the empty Chubby & Tubby building on Rainier Avenue and Walden Avenue. That prominent space, temporaryily a Christmas tree lot, has been vacant for nearly two years, since the iconic general store went out of business. Neighbors would love to see it redeveloped, but the prospect of another social-service organization moving to Rainier Valley was exactly the opposite of the neighborhood's business-and-jobs agenda--they'd hoped for another retail shop at the site. Rainier Valley feels slighted by the city's backing of CASA Latina, and caught in a Catch-22: While the largely low-income and minority Seattle district appreciates social-service groups--a lot of the services benefit the Valley--they want businesses that will hire people from the community, and help the neighborhood grow. But until Rainier Valley booms, social-service groups can still afford property there (and not in most other Seattle neighborhoods, like Belltown).

Frustrated, an angry group of neighborhood leaders--Smith, and heads of the Mount Baker Community Club, local schools, development nonprofits, the Genesee Merchants Association, and neighborhood crime-prevention groups--sent a terse letter to CASA Latina on December 8, asking the organization's executive director to find a "more suitable location" for the organization, pronto. Simply put, "From a philosophical standpoint, that's a commercial zone, and we need more jobs in Southeast Seattle," Smith explains. The fact that city money might help CASA Latina buy the Chubby & Tubby building makes the situation worse. "As far as city dollars being pledged to make this happen, we don't think so, and we're not going to take it," Smith says. "It just pissed us off. This action plan is out there"--the one neighbors gave to Nickels on November 15--"and we are saying to the city: 'These are your marching orders.'"

The city's heard them loud and clear, says Kenny Pittman at the Office of Policy and Management, which led the agenda process. But the mayor also supports CASA Latina's work, Pittman explains. Trying to smooth out the neighborhood conflict, Pittman plays it safe: "It sounds like [the neighborhood has] some real concerns, and that's the way the process should be. The community should have some input on the location of CASA Latina."

The community's real concerns are mainly economic. "The proposed day-laborer use runs opposite to the community's vision," wrote Smith, the letter's lead signer. If CASA Latina were to move into a prime space like the Chubby & Tubby building--"one of the few remaining commercially zoned parcels in the Rainier Valley"--the neighborhood's economic goals would be hampered. The Chubby & Tubby site would be better suited to a business being displaced from elsewhere in the neighborhood by Sound Transit's light rail project, or a new business venture, than another social service organization.

But CASA Latina needs a new home before Alaskan Way Viaduct construction bumps the organization from the trailer on a Western Avenue lot in Belltown it's occupied for five years. The Chubby & Tubby site would be perfect for the organization, as it's big enough to consolidate their currently scattered programs into one building, and it's nicer than the trailer. "We don't have indoor plumbing, no heated area, not enough indoor space for everybody. It was set up as a temporary site," explains executive director Hilary Stern. And it doesn't hurt that many of CASA Latina's clients hail from Rainier Valley and other southern neighborhoods. To help the agency relocate, city council members Richard Conlin and David Della got unanimous city council support for $250,000 in assistance. Before CASA Latina can have the city cash, they must meet conditions like formulating a solid financial plan, and getting the community involved. (On December 13, Conlin and Della sent a letter to CASA Latina, intervening in the brewing neighborhood dispute, and dinging the group for focusing their attention on the Chubby & Tubby building before getting neighborhood support.)

In addition to the neighborhood's economic worries, Rainier Valley leaders are also concerned that CASA Latina's day-laborer program could be a public-safety problem. "The riffraff that hangs out [on Western Avenue] would come with them," says Mariana Quarnstrom, director of the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council. "We're just going to lose what little ground we've made [in the neighborhood]." The Chubby & Tubby building is across the street from two minimarts, the community's letter argues, "setting the stage for people who are seeking work and social support to be undermined by easy access to alcohol." It's also near two schools and a nursing home.

Belltown businesses have had a rocky relationship with CASA Latina, Rainier neighbors say, and they don't want to inherit any problems. "As a generalization, their clientele seems to have a disregard and a lack of respect for the neighborhood," says Chuck Stempler, head of the Belltown Business Associaton. (Some Rainier residents even suspect that affluent Belltown is accelerating CASA Latina's move, considering viaduct construction is years away, and currently unfunded. Belltown leaders deny they're pushing CASA Latina out, and a search of campaign donation records indicates that CASA Latina's neighbors aren't funneling cash to the city council.)

To be sure, CASA Latina didn't create the day-laborer population in Belltown: The organization set up shop on its current site because it's historically the epicenter for day laborers seeking work--potential employers drive by early in the morning and pick up the workers they need, a cycle that's been going on for 50 years. Regardless, it's an organization Rainier Valley doesn't want. Smith--a Columbia City real estate agent--gave Stern a few listings for other buildings CASA Latina could look at, like one on Airport Way near Georgetown. "We all admire what CASA Latina does," emphasizes Quarnstrom. "I think Airport Way would be a good fit for them."

amy@thestranger.com

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