Letter to Seattle convention leaders: Your problem is out of control

SEATTLE — KIRO-7 obtained a scathing letter sent to Seattle convention leaders saying the organizers of a large national convention felt unsafe during a recent visit, because of aggressive behavior and drug use from people they encountered on downtown streets.

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The letter asked the leaders of Visit Seattle for extra security for their convention, after they said 14 members of their advanced planning team were accosted by people on the streets, saw open drug use, and witnessed people urinating and even defecating near the convention center or the team's hotel, during a planning visit in April.

The letter stated, "Seattle has been among our top picks as a convention destination, and unfortunately, due to our city experiences, we may need to remove Seattle from future consideration."

American Pharmacists Association had booked a convention to bring 6,300 pharmacists and their families from around the country to the Washington State Convention Center in March of 2019. The organization told Visit Seattle their convention could bring $8.5 million into the local economy next year.

"We want convention attendees to feel safe and welcome in Seattle," said David Blandford with Visit Seattle, who said currently the convention and tourism business in Seattle is thriving, pumping billions into the local economy.

"Business is great for sure," Blandford said. "But business may not always be great, because the time frame we're working on is not just 2018. We're working as far out as 15 to 20 years in advance.

"We're concerned that if the (public safety) problems were to become worse, more prolific, that could affect our business. Conventions could either cancel or threaten not to come back again."

The letter began by saying, "Based on my recent visit, I believe that the problem has gotten out of control."

The letter described what convention planners saw between their hotel and the Convention Center:
"Two men urinating on the street.
"One man who defecated on himself.
"We witnessed three young addicts sitting outside of a major establishment smoking from a pipe, and one was passed out.
"One man aggressively pursued a member of my team down the street, demanding cash.
"We lost count of the number of people walking around talking to themselves.
"The smell of urine and marijuana near the WSCC and along the routes of our hotels to the center."

The letter was forwarded by email to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan by Visit Seattle's President and CEO Tom Norwalk, who also added: "Sadly, our city is out of control and we are way past the tipping point we all talk about and have feared."

Norwalk asked Durkan for leadership on the homeless crisis, and vowed to support her on any efforts to reduce the impact on tourism.

"Our destination brand and Seattle's attractiveness (both for visitors and residents) is being tarnished and diminished daily,"Norwalk said.

According to Visit Seattle's statistics, 39.9 million visitors came to Seattle and King County in 2017. Those visitors spent $7.4 billion in the city and county in the same year, and tourism in Seattle generated an estimated $10.7 billion total economic impact.

"We have arguably the most dynamic vibrant colorful alive downtown in America and we're really proud of that, so that is a selling point," said Blandford, who says part of his job is to explain the city's challenges to visitors--and he says visitors frequently ask the same question.

"They ask 'is Seattle working to solve some of these problems?' And we want to tell them 'yes, we absolutely are, these are serious problems. Complex problems," Blandford said.

"We tell them 'this will take a long time to really affect positive change, but we are working on it with the mayor's office, and with police and the business community. It'll take all of us working together to really affect that change."'

Durkan's office sent KIRO-7 a written response to the letters, saying Durkan works regularly with Visit Seattle, and has proposed a multi-tiered plan which would potentially help hundreds of people to move to shelter.

According to Durkan's office:

"Seattle's shelters are 93% full each night. The Mayor's legislation will increase the number of bridge housing and shelter units in 90 days by 25%. Through Mayor Durkan's bill, the City would serve at least 500 people every night through a series of options being explored including:
• Expanding enhanced shelter capacity to serve an additional 205 people.
• Creating bridge housing at Haddon Hall to serve 75 people through a master lease.
• Expanding City Hall's basic shelter serving 120 people each night.
• Supporting of Whittier Heights Women's Village, a tiny home village serving 19 chronically homeless women.
• Opening 54 tiny homes in South Lake Union and 30 new tiny homes at 18th and Yesler following community engagement and site approval. These tiny homes would serve approximately 103 people."

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