When the last tenants left Aberdeen’s Seafirst building at the corner of Broadway and Market some observers worried it would go dark for good and become an unused, empty hulk on one of the city’s most prominent downtown corners.
But the Coastal Community Action Program (CCAP) has turned it into a bustling hub of community support, purchasing the building with grant funding and planning major renovations.
The local non-profit continues to rise from the ashes of an otherwise devastating fire that gutted its offices in the 2018 Aberdeen Armory fire. Just days after the fire, CCAP staff moved in to the makeshift space in the building that once housed a bank and professional offices but then stood empty. Later that year they completed the purchase and now have all but filled the building.
“We had the safest staples on the planet!” Says CEO Craig Dublanko as he opens a former security deposit box inside the bank vault labeled accordingly. Above it is one labeled White Out.
Perhaps they’ve been worth the added security. Dublanko’s staff has been very busy with those office supplies, helping and hiring more people in the community. CCAP works with low income individuals and families in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties to help them achieve economic stability. The agency aids people in a number of ways: help with weatherization programs to lower utility bills, job training and placement, housing, help with energy bills and transportation. Many of the functions are meant to remove barriers hindering people from getting into financial situations that will make them independent.
Since the fire they have hired about 40 new employees, expanding to over 240 from a reported 200 in early 2019.
One of their largest expansions is in the Social Security Representative Payment Program which provides benefit payment management for beneficiaries who are incapable of managing their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments.
“We have close to 700 people that we do this for, we have our own debit cards for them,” said Dublanko. In many cases, people in this program would be ineligible to receive money otherwise. With the funds, he said, “we pay their rent, we pay their bills, and if we aren’t paying their rent then they’re on the streets, so this is a big deal.” He explained that a lot of the people they work with were on the streets. “When we first started this [program] we thought we’d have about 10 or 15 people.” Payees are issued a debit card from CCAP and it’s recharged each month.
Other programs build and distribute personal packs of hygiene products, assist with community court (a program designed to keep people out of revolving door situations involving jail and minor offenses.) The agency arranges transportation for medical appointments and people newly-employed. CCAP handles coordinated entry for housing assistance where dozens of care coordinators help with various aspects of finding and maintaining living arrangements. They were also recently awarded a $3.25 million grant from the State Housing Trust Fund to build 24 low-income housing units in Aberdeen and Hoquiam.
After the 2018 fire that destroyed the museum and CCAP offices, Gov. Jay Inslee visited the CCAP offices when they still considered the building temporary.
“We lost everything,” said Dublanko. He said at the time that his staff was working out of cardboard file cabinets. But Dublanko’s team used the fact that it had to start from scratch to their advantage and the nonprofit was able to do things that many others in the state have not.
“In early 2018 the state of Washington partnered with the federal government and for the first time ever Medicaid could pay for homeless housing case management services in the state of Washington – not rent, just the case management,” said Dublanko, adding “When we rebuilt our homeless housing system here in conjunction with the Grays Harbor County Health Department, Cassie Lentz, we worked very close together and we braided the federal funding with all the rental funding and now we had a massive amount more of funding to use for case management than we’ve ever had before.” Another funding source gave them access to a program called Pathways, which works with those facing homelessness to address up to 21 different areas of their lives that may be attributing to their condition. The change allows them to help, rather than wait-list, hundreds of people facing homelessness monthly.
“That’s a huge improvement, systemically,” said Dublanko. He also adds that the agency’s homeless housing coordination and use of Medicaid money, is unrivaled across the state and other agencies, including King County, have sought guidance on how to do the same. He chuckled that after showing them how it’s done, “they come back and say ‘man we wish we could do that, but it’s so hard.’ [but] for us the fire gave us a fresh starting point.”
“Everyone else is trying to fix the train while it’s still moving, but in our case the train was fully off the tracks.” said Dublanko.
Two years after the fire work continues and some files are still in cardboard boxes. A perfect example of their get-back-to-work attitude may be the entryway to the former offices of Ingram, Zelasko, and Goodwin law firm, which now serves as multiple administration offices on the sixth floor. Rather than replacing the law firm’s wood-carved plaque, or purchasing new letters for the sign on the door, administrators printed out a page that conveys their message, posted it on the door and moved on to more pressing matters.
Originally built by SeaFirst bank, the building was part of a land lease agreement that was to gift the building to the landowners, the Aberdeen Cemetery Association, Inc. Endowed Care Fund in 2022. The income from the property was used for decades to maintain of the 125-acre cemetery on the Wishkah River on the north side of Aberdeen. David and Sandra Bielski are owners of the third-generation family cemetery business at Fern Hill. When SeaFirst was acquired by Bank of America in the 1980s Seafirst branches like Aberdeen’s were rebranded as Bank of America. The lease agreement with Bielski held through all of that, which meant the building would go back to the landowner when the original lease expired in 2022. In 2017, the family reached an agreement with Bank of America to complete the 1972 lease. Bielski immediately put the building on the market for sale or lease.
The City of Aberdeen was interested in purchasing it at one point, and under Mayor Erik Larson spent $5,000 to study the feasibility of using the building as a city hall. Dublanko was also interested in the building before the fire. He said as his offices burned, he reached out to David Bielski who was very receptive and they were able to move in within days of the fire. A Building Communities Fund (BCF) Grant in 2018 allowed them to purchase the building and the land on which it sits for $1.7 million debt-free.
CCAP plans to spend some money on the building’s HVAC and elevator system first, but Dublanko said there is a laundry list of items they would like to repair or remodel on the building. A 2020 budget update includes millions in construction costs for items like lighting upgrades, entire floor remodels, resealing the roof, repairing windows, as well as cleaning, sealing and repainting the exterior. All totaled, the report states $7.2-million in projected costs total to purchase and renovate the building. With just over $3 million funded through the first BCF, administrators are seeking a second grant for the remainder.
It might look like CCAP is getting into the tiny homes business looking into the parking garage on the first floor of the old bank building. Dublanko explains that when COVID protocols shut down state offices and people found it more difficult to reach social services, CCAP had to change the way it helped people because it could no longer accommodate a large gathering in the lobby.
“We used the old bank drawer, and we weren’t sure if that would even work.” Said Dublanko, pointing toward the drive-up teller booth in the center of the garage where the receptionist arranges the meetings and coordinates the lobby. He adds, “to keep our staff safe, and the clients safe during COVID.”
Prospective clients now enter on foot, going backwards through the former drive-up window into a fenced area where they can sit and even charge their phones at a responsible distance. Staff developed a system using 11 pop up privacy booths built of plywood and framed doors. Each room features a laptop with multiple video cameras and screens. Clients are assigned a room and once inside they are connected through Zoom to the office they seek inside the building. About two dozen Care Coordinators are available in the building on any given day, with a handful of others ready to help those who might need immediate but not scheduled assistance.
Most of their business with the public is now conducted through the parking garage but the former lobby of the bank has been converted to accommodate a lobby atmosphere when that is possible again. Currently, they plan to use it for federal COVID response offices. When they first moved into the new building most of the offices were behind cubicle walls in the lobby.
Dublanko walked the path of a labyrinth through multiple floors of busy offices for a quick tour. Each office follows COVID protocols. Employees such as weatherization specialists and care coordinators report to their office and mask up for any interactions in the hallways.
While it doesn’t get much use during the pandemic, their new offices also feature a large lunchroom and break room with table tennis and other distractions. On the second floor of the parking garage, behind a gate locked at night, charging stations are made available for electric vehicle users. Dublanko said they were also recently awarded a $243,000 grant to build a 121-kilowatt solar installation to offset energy costs.