SEATAC— Inside the recently opened SeaTac International Mall, sheer curtains and colorful clothing hang on the walls that line the hallways.
The 21 stalls rented by small business owners, who are mostly immigrants or refugees from East Africa, feature items such as home decor, traditional African clothing, and jeweled tea set shelves . On Monday, a few traders quietly stirred in their stalls as they returned to work after celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the festival that concludes Ramadan.
Located at the busy intersection of International Boulevard and South 208th Street, SeaTac International Mall serves as a one-stop-shop – it also has an adjoining grocery store, chiropractor’s office, and office space for rent. The co-owners plan to open a cafe and grocery store in the near future.
This complex, which once housed a bicycle shop and auto parts store, is now home to many Somali businesses that were moved from the nearby Bakaro mall a few years ago. As small business owners with nowhere to go after their stores reopened in 2019 at the SeaTac International Mall, the site offers a non-traditional end to a typical story of gentrification and displacement.
“It’s cool to be here. The community needed something like this,” said Ishaq Ali of the Ishaq Ali Fashion store in Somali through the translation of Faisal Mohamed, co-owner of SeaTac International Mall.
The mall’s opening on May 4 came at a time when small businesses have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to challenges such as lack of access to capital and savings as well as language barriers, small businesses owned by people of color, immigrants and refugees have not rebounded from the pandemic as quickly as other companies, Andrea Reay, president and CEO of the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce mentioned.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, from February to April 2020, African Americans experienced the largest decline in the number of active business owners with a drop of 41%, followed by immigrant business owners with a drop of 36%. Latin American business owners fell 32%, while women business owners fell 25%. The number of white business owners decreased by 17%.
Following fierce opposition and a lawsuit from the former owners, Bakaro Mall, which had dozens of Somali-owned stores, closed in 2019 to make way for a Mixed-use residential project of 585 units to be developed by Inland Group, based in Spokane.
The closure of the Bakaro shopping center struck near his home for Mohamed, whose parents lived 10 minutes from the shopping complex and knew people with stalls there. The relocation of businesses left a void in the community that Mohamed hoped to fill by renting a new property with his brother-in-law Mahamud Duale and family friend Abdirashid Hersi.
A graduate in business administration from North Dakota State University, Mohamed has worked in purchasing and supply chain for most of his career, while Duale owned a grocery store and was well versed in operations. During this time, Hersi was well-versed in community engagement due to his outreach in local nonprofits and his long-term residency in Seattle. The three combined their skills and, at the end of 2019, found a space to rent, brainstormed the concept, reached out to potential tenants and drafted contracts.
They received help from the city, nonprofits and private companies along the way. For example, the SeaTac-based Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce referred co-owners to funding opportunities and wrote a letter of support for the King County Opportunity Communities Business Affordability Pilot Project, which provided them with $ 150,000 for the project last year. The chamber also helped with marketing and promotion, as well as the organization of the inauguration ceremony in early May. Craft3, a nonprofit loan fund that operates in Oregon and Washington, provided a commercial loan to help cover construction costs.
Reay, of the chamber, said they helped Bakaro Mall business owners relocate as soon as they learned of the possibility of a move. While the chamber had helped small business owners with similar projects in South King County in the past, SeaTac International Mall was the largest relocation project they had collaborated on.
From the start, the City of SeaTac Economic Development team assisted the three partners and their architect in the permitting and construction process, and put them in touch with various organizations to help with business development, regional marketing and financing, said Aleksandr Yeremeyev, director of economic development for SeaTac.
In Reay’s eyes, SeaTac International Mall is a community solution to travel. “Commercial affordability is a major issue throughout the Puget Sound region. So many small businesses and microenterprises are facing displacement, and it has a huge impact on the community, ”Reay said. “This is a great example of what can happen when private and public collaboration and partnership takes place.”
The mall doesn’t just serve as a place of commerce, Reay said. It is also a space for community gathering.
On a recent Monday, Ali of Ishaq Ali Fashion sat behind a counter full of gold costume jewelry. While the new stand is owned by her son, Ali’s daughter had a store called Naji Fashion in the Bakaro mall. The closure of the previous mall sent shock waves through the local East African diaspora, Ali said. The SeaTac International Mall is not yet as busy as the Bakaro Mall, as it is still largely unknown, Ali added, but the opening of the new store felt like it was reclaiming a piece of the community.
Mohamed and his partners also hope to create space for new entrepreneurs and aim to keep rent affordable between $ 650 and $ 700 per month.
Kent resident Najmo Hamud, co-owner of Fashion King, did not own a store at Bakaro Mall, but learned of the new opportunity from one of the mall’s founders. In a nod to growing up with seven boys, Hamud’s store sells western clothes for boys and men as well as traditional Somali clothing such as colorful sarongs in various patterns called macawis. Despite it being a quiet Monday afternoon, Hamud said his store was packed with customers until around 2:30 a.m. in the days leading up to Eid al-Fitr.
“I love to see brothers getting dressed,” Hamud said as he folded a shirt. A personal trainer and respiratory therapist, Hamud describes herself as a workaholic who designs some of the boutique’s clothes and also recently opened a women’s fitness center in Renton.
While many stalls feature similar items, each store has its own unique flair and style, Mohamed said. The previous week, women waited outside the mall door starting at 7:30 a.m. to get henna at a beauty salon. Another booth featured hair braiding and makeup services by Najma Beynah, owner of Bainah Beauty. Beynah had always wanted to open a salon and braid people’s hair at home. Although the Kent resident did not know most of the other traders, she said she felt welcomed by the community.
“Everyone treats me like a girl,” Beynah said, her long braids partially covered in a floral headband.
A hallway that connects the stalls to the grocery store has two prayer rooms that people can observe throughout the day. The culturally relevant grocery store owned by Mohamed and his partners sells food such as dried dates and cereals imported from Arab countries. East Africa’s nonprofit Community Services, which offers after-school programs, will move into a spare office next month.
Going forward, the co-founders would like to own properties and set up their own chamber of commerce for the East African community. “If our tenants are successful, we are successful. We don’t want to be just owners for them. We want to provide them with tools to help them succeed, ”Mohamed said.
He envisions SeaTac International Mall becoming an incubator, where owners are offered business, marketing and IT courses to help them grow their business.
“For the community as a whole, I think this is really just the start,” Mohamed said.