ARLINGTON — U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) was joined by Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert and Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin in leading a roundtable discussion of local business owners in the Arlington City Council Chambers on Thursday, April 24, about how the aftermath of the March 22 Oso mudslide has impacted their livelihoods.
Maria Contreras-Sweet, the recently appointed administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, made her first trip to Washington state by joining Cantwell at that afternoon’s roundtable meeting in Arlington, where she touted the SBA’s disaster loans.
“We can only help you when you come forward to identify yourselves,” said Contreras-Sweet, who noted that SBA personnel were on the ground within 24 hours of a disaster being declared in Oso. “It’s always important that we learn from and listen to those of you on the ground.”
John Olson, of Washington Compost, acknowledged the effects of the slide on Oso and Arlington, but nonetheless asserted that the businesses of Darrington have been hit even harder than their counterparts in those other two communities.
“State Route 530 is a lifeline for Darrington,” Olson said. “What could be taken care of with seven trucks before takes 14 trucks now, because by adding 90-some miles to their trips, if they took four trips before, they can only take two trips now.”
Olson deemed this added travel time especially damaging to Darrington’s largest employer, the Hampton Lumber Mill, while Jason Joseph, Board chair of the Sauk-Suaittle Indian Tribe, estimated that his stores are sustaining thousands of dollars a day in losses.
When Carla Hall asked about the protocols for disaster loans for agricultural businesses such as her Fruitful Farms, Cantwell noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture tends to have primary authority over such cases, but James Rivera, associate administrator of the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance, speculated that SBA may be able to provide some measure of relief to Fruitful Farms’ storefront component.
“With the summertime comes tourism, which many of these businesses depend upon,” Tolbert said.
“Even if State Route 530 were to reopen right away, the businesses along the highway would still experience a lag time, when people wouldn’t realize yet that the road had been reopened,” Rankin said. “People have already changed their travel routes, so we’ve got to get them back in the valley as soon as possible.”
“We realize there are delicate issues involved in clearing the highway, but once the last of the recovery work is complete, we’d like to see a quick response, like when the Skagit River Bridge was rebuilt in Mount Vernon,” said Bonnie Rose, of the Rhodes River Ranch. “Without events like the Darrington Bluegrass Festival this summer, we’re just businesses on a dead-end road, and that’s not economically sustainable.”
When Contreras-Sweet pointed out that employees can be reimbursed for the additional mileage of their detours around the slide, Downtown Arlington Business Association President Mike Britt countered that the added travel time is not so easy to compensate.
“To me, this is really reminiscent of the period right after 9/11,” said Britt, owner of Britt Sport Cards in downtown Arlington. “I’m really scared of how long this will last. I sell sports memorabilia, and especially with the Seahawks’ win this year, my business should be thriving, but I’m in a worse position than I was when I started four years ago.”
Contreras-Sweet commended Britt for making his fellow members of the local business community aware of the SBA’s disaster relief programs by talking about them and applying for them himself.
Troy McClelland, of the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County, framed the issue as more than just surviving the summer for area businesses, since they’ll also need to incrementally compensate for their initial loss of revenue over the years to come.
“It’s a multiplier effect that’s going to impact Arlington and the region as a whole,” Cantwell agreed. “I’d like to see an economic analysis of the loss of revenue this will cause on the state level, because I think people are going to be shocked. We can’t go without State Route 530 until September, and then live on only one lane of traffic.”
Even as the discussion explored ways of diversifying Darrington’s economy, Cantwell flatly stated that tourism and timber are the community’s current key strengths.
“I’ve been in other towns when they were developing outdoor recreational programs,” said Brian Pernick, of Adventure Cascades. “Darrington blows them all away with its level of access to the wilderness alone.”
“I want Darrington to be a destination,” Cantwell said. “This community’s true grit and spirit are very apparent.”