Frustrated theater supporters bring their case to city hall

A packed house of citizens concerned about the sudden closure of the D&R Theater sought answers from Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson and other city officials during a lengthy public comment period at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting. An hour-long conversation veered between venting about the business climate and frustration about the number of city commissions to how everyone in the city needs to do a better job supporting local businesses.

“I think it was therapeutic in the end,” Simpson said. “I think a lot of people just needed to get things off their chest.”

For many, it was the first time they had set foot inside the City Council chambers. It’s unclear exactly how many people showed up just to talk about the D&R Theatre closure and the recent happenings. Altogether, there were about 120 people in attendance, although the numbers dwindled after a while. Some were there for a planned Chehalis Basin Flood Authority presentation. Others came for a recognition of a law enforcement officer.

Theater owner John Yonich closed the D&R abruptly earlier this month, citing frustration with government regulations from the city, county and state. He put up a wooden wall around the theater on the city sidewalks and workers were seen removing theater chairs and bringing them to a truck outside. Yonich did extensive renovation to the theater and booked a broad range of acts. He also opened a coffee shop and ice cream parlor at the theater and a restaurant a block or so away. Some see the theater as the possible catalyst for even more extensive redevelopment downtown.

Aberdeen resident Samson Kohn was among those who attended after a drive on Facebook encouraged residents to speak out about the theater. Kohn had been part of the group that rallied outside the theater last week, writing messages of encouragement on the wall and walking to City Hall after. There was no public comment period at last week’s workshop. That meant the first time for residents to speak out was last night.

“The loss of any business in this city, especially one that someone has invested so much time and money in, should be considered a failure of the city — and I’m not just talking about administration, but of its citizens,” Kohn told the council. “… We’re looking for ‘What now?’ How do we prevent this from happening again or how do we prevent this from happening now? The city of Aberdeen seems to fail to connect with the public.”

“I don’t want to hear about another study,” declared Elaine Redden of Aberdeen. “I want somebody to do something.”

Michelle Glick of Aberdeen Honda told the mayor that the D&R Theatre closure “was a big wakeup call to me.”

“I do hope it’s a wakeup call for all of us and I hope if John does re-open and he reaches out to some of us and we all take this opportunity and lesson and unify and do what we can to help the city,” Glick said.

Aberdeen resident Grace Hagen says she did all she could to support the D&R Theatre, purchasing six tickets there. She says the D&R Theatre closure is making her think twice about staying in Aberdeen.

“I live and work and spend my money in Aberdeen,” Hagen said. “I’m tired of what I perceive as the same old routine. … We do all of this work and committees after committees, and they get stale.”

Mike Spezia, the advertising director for The Daily World and a member of the Aberdeen Revitalization Movement, turned to the crowd and urged them to do more to support their local businesses and get more involved. “This is big,” he said. “This is big, but it took a closure of a business to make it happen.”

Spezia offered the Aberdeen Revitalization Movement as a place for residents to get more involved.

Bill Wolfenbarger, owner of Jodesha Broadcasting, said he moved his business to Aberdeen in 1999 and he has no problems with the city. “I just want to mention the broader picture,” Wolfenbarger said, calling upon the audience to raise their hand if they shop out of town once in a while. Many in the audience did raise their hand. “I’ll be the first to plead guilty. Stay home a little more often. The problem you see in Aberdeen is not an anomaly. … We always like to gravitate to the next biggest city for the next big deal. But it’s our fault. Do I think we can reverse it? I don’t know. But it’s up to me and you.”

Aberdeen Councilman John Erak told the audience that city officials have done nothing wrong.

“Most people don’t understand there are rules, regulations and laws,” Erak said. “All three are different. And the county and the state and the city must abide by them just as sure as you must abide by the laws of a community when it comes to traffic control.”

Aberdeen Council President Kathi Hoder also made clear that the city knew nothing about the D&R Theatre closing before it happened.

“Probably one of the biggest supporters of the theater is the city,” Simpson said. “It was Mr. Yonich’s decision to close the theater down. The city did not close the theater down.”

“I understand you didn’t close the theater down,” Kohn told Simpson. “But I’m trying to spark interest in the community and try to figure out why businesses that come into this community don’t survive. Whether that’s policy changes or procedures that need to be addressed, I guess time will tell with that.”

“I have had two conversations with Mr. Yonich and the problems are not all with the city; they’re with the county and state, too,” Simpson said. “He’s working with these things. He’s a very smart man and I look forward to the theater opening back up again, but it all boils down to the fact that we have to be a part of it. … If you support something, get out there with your bucks and support it. Mr. Yonich has put out a lot of dollars in this community. If or when he opens, buy tickets and show your real support. But if you never went to the theater, you’ve got nothing to say. (Former Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce president) LeRoy Tipton said this over and over again: Shop the Harbor First. Let’s take care of our people here first. Share your money with these people. It’s important we do that.”