RECREATIONAL EQUIPMENT INC. opens its new store tomorrow, bringing change not only to its surroundings in the Cascade area but also to its old home on Capitol Hill.
In a humble churchy storefront in the neighborhood known as Cascade, God's word had been sent forth to the poor and drug-wrecked for nine years until, Lo, one day a large steel tower emerged on the horizon, casting a long shadow of change.
The tower encases a 65-foot climbing rock at Recreational Equipment Inc.'s new flagship store, and it's announcing the future as surely as it's erasing the past.
As the store prepares for its grand opening tomorrow, the Matt Talbot Center for recovering street alcoholics is closing. Only a half-block south of the new REI, the center lost its lease to an outdoors store that is following the recreational giant to Cascade from its old home on Capitol Hill.
That's just one of many effects rippling forth from the REI move. The village of recreation, sports and bicycle shops that has sprung up around the old REI must now see whether it can survive in REI's absence. And the Cascade neighborhood must see whether it can survive REI's upscale clientele and the new businesses it might attract.
After all, some patrons of the old REI were known to wander across the street to the Sin City shop for a body piercing or tattoo. Those hip hikers will now converge on Cascade, a scruffy and unpretentious neighborhood where Red Wing work boots are more likely to be worn than Raichle hiking gear. The neighborhood is solidly working class - so much so that labor leader Dave Beck grew up there.
Today, about 400 people live in the area - less than the number expected to shop at REI each day.
Mountaineers are fond of posting warnings about "trampling" fragile ecosystems; will they be as careful about trampling on a fragile community?
There are signs of sensitivity.
As part of its grand-opening celebration, REI has created a "flagship grant" to establish an office for the Cascade Neighborhood Council. REI also has a long relationship with the Matt Talbot Center. As part of the center's treatment program, participants are taken on outdoor ventures "for recreation, not recreational drugs," says director Gregg Alex, and REI provides them rental equipment at no cost.
Mindful of that, Alex and REI are discussing ways that REI might help the agency move to Belltown. Matt Talbot was in the Cascade neighborhood nine years before losing its lease to Feathered Friends, a mountaineering-equipment company that is following REI to Cascade and will pay nearly twice what Matt Talbot paid in rent for the space at 119 Yale N.
REI's arrival, coupled with all the attention focused on Cascade during the Seattle Commons park debate, has bumped up land values and rents.
"I was terrified," says glass artist Mark Eckstrand, who negotiated a new lease two years ago to beat the anticipated boom in Cascade. If he had signed the lease today, he thinks his rent would be 20 percent higher.
But, he says, that's the price of progress.
Dripping with sweat inside his glass-blowing studio at 429 Eastlake Ave. E., Eckstrand nods to some windows inside his shop. "Somebody systematically threw rocks through every window on that wall," he says. "It cost me $1,000. REI will upgrade the neighborhood and this neighborhood needs it."
Vandalism and graffiti are a recurring Cascade problem - even the beautiful glass paperweights he implanted in the sidewalk outside his studio got bashed in one night by a group of brawling, drunken men.
George Flood, executive assistant to the president at Pemco Financial Services, agrees that REI will help improve the neighborhood and may attract more business: "It's not a gunpowder factory - it's not going to deter people from moving in."
Indeed, the old REI store at 1525 11th Ave., (which closed yesterday and will be replaced with a Value Village thrift store) was a magnet for other outdoorsy businesses. In addition to Feathered Friends, the block is home to the Velo Stores bike shop, the 2nd Base used sports-equipment store, and Crescent Down Works, a groovy skateboard and snowboard shop.
Are they worried about REI's departure?
"Oh, finally, they're gone!" quips 2nd Base owner Beau Sadick. "I ran my competition off the hill. They couldn't handle it and ran like scared dogs."
He's kidding, of course. REI has been king of the hill since it moved there in 1962 and fills such a strong niche that it could draw customers to the gnarliest corner of town if it had to. Still, 2nd Base and REI have a certain simpatico, with some REI customers fleeing that store in sticker shock and relieved to discover Sadick's comfortably priced haven of used ski boots, toboggans and backpacks.
But that doesn't mean Sadick is dependent on REI. "I'm located between Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College," he says. "I have the Broadway Playfield across the street; and I believe in the community - I live here."
That sentiment is echoed at Velo Sports, which has been on the corner of 11th Avenue and East Pine Street 14 years, and isn't scouting for property in the Cascade neighborhood.
"If we were solely dependent on our neighbor to support this business, that wouldn't be a good idea," says manager Lloyd Tamura. "We look at our business as a bike shop serving the downtown core."
Meanwhile, at the south end of the block, the mere suggestion that Crescent Down Works might be reliant on REI brings derisive laughter.
"I feel no rivalry - we're very different stores," says Crescent manager Francis McGrody. There's not much customer overlap although, he says, "on their big sales, we sometimes get people coming in and gaping: `Hey honey, look, there's a snowboard shop over there. Let's see what the young people are doing.' "
Nearby Sin City relies on a different crowd, too, although owner Tomi Stone claims that REI customers frequently become his.
"We have a lot of people come over, look and come back," says Stone, standing over a display case of rings for the nose, ear and navel. He'll miss that clientele, but thinks the neighborhood will thrive without REI. After all, there's a new mega-QFC grocery store being built a block away and Value Village has its own drawing power.
There is, he says, life after REI.