Emails reveal frustration with city led to SoDo food desert

SEATTLE — A KIRO 7 investigation reveals that frustration with the city's response to crime and homelessness led the owner of SoDo's only full-service, low-cost grocery store to shut the doors.

Located on 4th Avenue South, Grocery Outlet was a daily target of crime, including shoplifting, robbery and assaults.  "We are begging for help.  My manager had to call 911 seven times in a single day," wrote owner Nathan McLaughlin in a letter to city leaders.

 According to crime reports obtained by KIRO 7, the Seattle Police Department responded to 790 incidents at Grocery Outlet over a two-year-period. Those incidents included 12 robberies, 12 assaults, 131 reports of shoplifting and theft, and 28 disturbances.  "My employees have been assaulted a number of times," McLaughlin said. "I've been assaulted a number of times. I've had knives pulled on me."

 In emails to Mayor Jenny Durkan and members of the Seattle City Council, McLaughlin detailed a litany of crime at his store, including a man from an encampment threatening to "start stabbing people" and a woman claiming she had a gun and was "going to start killing people."

 McLaughlin said the perimeter of his business became a gathering point for homeless campers who were encouraged to relocate there by the city's Navigation Team. "They specifically told us to come over here," Robert Clifton said. Clifton was cleaning up the encampment where he lives when KIRO 7 spoke with him. Not all members of the homeless community make such an effort.

"Every morning I have to come in and clean up mounds of garbage, needles, feces, condoms, tampons, whatever they throw over the fence-line overnight," McLaughlin said.

In February, after years of complaints to city leaders, the Grocery Outlet in SoDo closed its doors. "There goes the discounts. There goes the savings," customer Jason Marshall said. In the weeks and months that followed, coronavirus sent people searching for food.  Without Grocery Outlet, SoDo became a food desert.

 “The folks down here, they don’t have anywhere to get groceries.” said Erin Goodman of the SoDo Business Improvement Area. Goodman told KIRO 7 that city leaders were either “unable or unwilling” to remedy the problems.  “Grocery Outlet is the only store from downtown to the Tukwila line.  It is a low-cost grocery store, so many of the people who live on our streets are also their customers,” Goodman said.