Much more than a mall: Northgate Chamber of Commerce hopes to redefine

A huge crowd gathered on Saturday, July 15, in the Northgate neighborhood, and it wasn't for a sale or a traffic snarl. They came to celebrate the opening of the Seattle Public Library's new Northgate branch, the Northgate Community Center and the adjacent park and playground.

Holistic growth

Situated across the street from Northgate Mall, the new facilities have less to do with commercialism and everything to do with community.

Even so, the Northgate Chamber of Commerce, established in 2002, took a role in the celebration and will participate in the community center's activities in the future. The chamber's mission is to create value, according to its website, and part of that is a focused effort to support the community.

As chairperson of the Northgate chamber board of directors, Amani Harris works "to help our businesses grow, but also to help them give back to the community."

As community groups need help, the chamber tries to connect them to businesses, or to sponsor grants, such as the recent $15,000 for the Lifetime of Literacy project.

While Harris acknowledges a need for economic development in the Northgate region, he takes a holistic view, where community service is part of the development of the area. Harris has been taught to give back, "engage the culture, change the world," he said.

In speaking of the area, Harris corrects himself from calling the chamber's wide geographic reach a "problem."

"The opportunity is that Northgate is this really large area with lots of really good neighborhoods within it," he said.

Spanning from North 145th to 80th streets and Lake City Way to Aurora Avenue North, the Northgate chamber represents businesses within five residential neighborhoods including Maple Leaf and Licton Springs. Next to Downtown Seattle, this is the largest concentration of businesses in the city.

A committed business climate

Harris recognizes - and values the efforts of - the area's major, anchor businesses such as Jackson Golf Club, Northwest Hospital, Lakeside School, North Seattle Community College and the mall.

However, he also acknowledges the smaller, locally owned, one-person operations, some located here since the 1950s.

"If every one of the businesses does well, the whole area does well." Harris said. "Our role is to have an overall, general business climate that is committed."

Unlike smaller business communities in Seattle, the Northgate Stakeholders Group oversees revitalization and development of the area. With 22 seats occupied by representatives from anchor businesses, residential community councils and landowners, the group addresses problems and leave the chamber able to direct volunteer efforts at "opportunities."

Finding an identity

The chamber began a family-oriented celebration of the community to bring businesses, residents and arts together. The second-annual Northgate Family Festival, taking place this year on Aug. 12 and 13, will celebrate the community and provide an opportunity for visitors to experience Northgate in a whole, new way.

At the grand opening of the new library, community center and park on Saturday, Mayor Greg Nickels recalled how once "people didn't feel Northgate was a neighborhood."

Harris said Northgate "really lacks an identity," but he hopes - as community members come together to organize and participate in the festival and at the community center - a commonality will emerge naturally.

"The most important thing is how we define our neighborhood," Harris explained, adding that he doesn't want to pick a description off a list or have a label thrust upon them from outsiders.

Harris has his own pet project. He sees potential within the currently ungroomed, unmaintained areas tucked inside the on- and off-ramps of Interstate 5. Just cutting the grass would be better, according to Harris, but he hopes to see the areas beautified with landscaping, welcome signs and, perhaps, artwork that reflects the community identity.

Looking long-range

As a relative newcomer, Harris has served on the chamber board since fall 2003, soon after opening his Edward Jones Investments office on Pinehurst Way Northeast.

The head office had asked him to relocate from Queen Anne to Northgate, where the "first thing I did was look for the chamber," he said.

His office - decorated with tokens of his 10 years of Army service and his subsequent ROTC commission, as well as photos of his wife and children - show his deep ties and the results of his hard work.

As for the chamber, Harris is "trying to run with our vision in small ways." He wants to do whatever it takes to make the area more viable, he said, but he's aware it takes time. "I think long-range," he said. "Our job is not to do everything; it is to encourage involvement."

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