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Oso businesses struggle with slide aftermath

While Fruitful Farms doesn’t officially reopen until May 9, Kathy Carlson and Kay Fantin of the United Way of Snohomish County stopped by to support an Oso local business on April 30. - Kirk Boxleitner
While Fruitful Farms doesn’t officially reopen until May 9, Kathy Carlson and Kay Fantin of the United Way of Snohomish County stopped by to support an Oso local business on April 30.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

OSO — While many of the businesses in Oso are no strangers to surmounting obstacles presented by surrounding environmental conditions, from floods to the area’s previous slide within the past decade, the March 22 slide across State Route 530 has them in a bind the likes of which they’ve never dealt with before.

Carla Hall and her son Aaron have lived in Oso, right at 21308 State Route 530, for the past 11 years, and operated Fruitful Farm next door to their home for the past seven of those years. The slide in 2006 presented few difficulties that they were aware of at the time, while the flood in 2010 required a prompt response, but receded almost as quickly as it had come.

“The water went up and down on the same day,” said Aaron Hall, manager of Fruitful Farm. “Nobody expected it to be that fast.”

While the Halls spent the day sandbagging their property, and received aid in moving their feed from the basement to make sure it stayed dry, the 2010 flood’s impacts were relatively easy to mitigate when compared to the March 22 slide, which has hit their livelihood hard.

“Every spring, we start planting in February, and we have to plan which plants we’ll be growing in our greenhouses or bringing here, and which supplies we need to bring in,” Aaron Hall said. “Even after almost a month, we were still optimistic about State Route 530 reopening relatively soon, so I put my efforts into fundraising for the Oso Community Chapel instead, and helped generate about $190,000 for those who have been hit hardest by the slide. We weren’t worried about our business until we started getting closer to the time of year when we usually open, and the highway wasn’t open yet because they hadn’t stopped the search.”

Carla called the Hampton Lumber Mill in Darrington to check on a rumor that they’d closed, and while the mill’s manager was able to refute those claims, she did learn of the significant additional costs of time and money that Hampton Lumber was incurring because of the two-hour detour its truckers were being forced to take. When she spoke with Washington State Department of Transportation officials, they were unable to tell her when the search might end, and explained to her that they were limited in clearing the road by the remaining victim recovery efforts.

“So we didn’t know whether we should proceed or declare this season a total loss,” said Carla Hall, owner of Fruitful Farm. “For what we do, we have to have traffic on this road in order to be viable.”

“We don’t market our goods at any other location,” Aaron Hall said. “We’ve done well enough, with just our Oso location, that we’ve never needed to before.”

While Fruitful Farm usually opens the last week of April, the Halls have rescheduled that opening to Friday, May 9, at 9:30 a.m., to coincide with the opening of the Mystic Mountain Nursery at 29909 Oso Loop Rd.

“We’ve already got bills due,” Carla Hall said. “Those first couple of weeks usually cover a lot of our costs just by themselves. We’re spending thousands of dollars to have these plants ready to sell, and a lot of our business is in the spring.”

“The irony is that we were doing all this relief work, but now we realize that we might need some help,” Aaron Hall said.

The Halls credited WSDOT, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration with all being very sympathetic to their plight, but WSDOT is constrained by the necessities of its ongoing search efforts, while FEMA and SBA have both told the Halls that they don’t have the authority to grant disaster loans to Fruitful Farm, which falls under the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead.

“Our business doesn’t fit into a neat little box,” Aaron Hall said. “Even if we do qualify for those loans, we don’t want to apply for them unless we have a plan to pay them back, and we can’t make those plans until we know when Highway 530 will be fully reopened and we’ll have traffic back on this road. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how much of Oso is still accessible. It was the Steelhead Drive neighborhood that was wiped out, not us. We’ve had so many people tell us that they thought we were on the other side of the slide. Oso is still here, and still open for business.”

Bonnie Rose, of the Rhodes River Ranch and Restaurant at 22016 Entsminger Rd., agreed with the Halls that better signage along State Route 530 and Highway 9 in Arlington could clear up some of this confusion, if state legislators allowed exceptions to WSDOT’s signage rules. Like Fruitful Farm, Rhodes River Ranch is not only losing business from visitors making round-trips from Arlington, but also from travelers who are headed to Darrington, the North Cascades and beyond.

“I doubt they’ll take the time to drive through that temporary-access one-lane road,” Aaron Hall said.

“Our Easter buffet is typically one of our huge events for the year, but attendance was down to about a third of its normal levels this year,” said Rose, whose 30 employees include several Darrington residents who live on the other side of the slide. “We’ve had to create a bunkhouse arrangement for them to stay here during the week, while they arrange babysitters and caretakers for their families back home. Everything’s a waiting game now, and it affects how much meat and produce I should buy.”

On Wednesday, April 30, Rose greeted Bridget and Larry Evans, two regular customers of the Rhodes River Ranch’s Restaurant since its inception three years ago, who had been stranded on the east side of the slide since March 22.

“We have fond memories here,” Bridget Evans said.

“People think we’re all isolated out here in the boonies, but they don’t realize how many businesses there actually are in Oso,” Rose said. “Economically, this area was already in decline, which is why it’s so important to revitalize it with recreational opportunities, but right now, the main road is closed, more parks need to be reopened and there’s no river recreation left, because everything downstream is polluted.”

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