Procession of the Species is returning with fanfare this year. What does that mean for downtown?

The COVID-19 pandemic was hard on everyone, but particularly downtown Olympia as small business owners and their employees adjusted to new rules on the fly to stay in business.

Some business survived, some businesses did not and some have forever changed how they do business. Some say the state of downtown is close to where it was before the pandemic and some do not.

“Downtown Olympia is suffering post COVID,” said Eric Pollard, co-owner of Radiance Herbs and Massage and the Kindred Moon Apothecary, in an email to The Olympian last month. He could not be reached specifically for this story. “With state workers working from home and more people shopping online, our downtown is really suffering.”

But despite their different views on the state of downtown, downtown businesses and other business officials agree that the return of the iconic Procession of the Species on Saturday, April 27, is an important milestone for downtown and the community.

The Procession, initially a celebration of Earth Day, has become a thing unto itself. Before COVID, it would attract thousands of spectators to downtown to watch the costumed dancers, drummers and other participants who carry and wear a variety of papier mache creatures and symbols that jiggle and wiggle as the Procession snakes its way along a serpentine route.

Richenda Richardson, owner and co-founder of Childhood’s End Gallery, which has been around since 1971 and at its current Fourth Avenue location since 1978, called the Procession a “great catalyst,” bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of people to Arts Walk, a twice-yearly city event held the same weekend in April.

Richardson said downtown is “way better for it.” During Procession’s absence, which was largely due to the pandemic, her customers continually asked about it.

“There’s a sense of relief that it’s back,” she said, adding that its return speaks to a resilient organization that puts it on and a resilient community.

Janis Dean, who operates longtime Olympia gift shop Popinjay, said the Procession appeals to everyone, young or old.

“People are happy that it’s returning,” she said.

‘Better than whole’

The city of Olympia’s Economic Development Director Mike Reid called the Procession a “foundational piece” for downtown, saying it distinguishes the city’s downtown from so many in the region.

“It’s an incredibly unique thing to the city of Olympia that can’t be replicated or duplicated,” he said. “It is our brand and its impact is immeasurable.”

As for the state of downtown, Reid is optimistic.

“I do think downtown is very close to exceeding where we were at 2019,” he said, adding that he has come to that conclusion through the use of geofencing technology, which can examine foot traffic via cellular phone data, as well as the number of vacant storefronts that are covered over with “brown butcher paper,” a sign that tenant improvements are taking place inside.

One such location is the former King Solomon’s Reef on Fourth Avenue. The Olympian reported on the new endeavor there, a shellfish restaurant, in January, and although it’s hard to tell what’s going on now, Reid said the “oyster boys” are moving forward with it.

Reid also pointed out that in the Procession’s absence, other events sprung up over the years, such as Love Oly Summer Fest and South Sound Block Party. Throw in the Procession and in some ways the community is “better than whole,” he said.

A trio of 20-foot-tall peacock puppets show their colors during the 2017 Procession of the Species celebration in downtown Olympia.
A trio of 20-foot-tall peacock puppets show their colors during the 2017 Procession of the Species celebration in downtown Olympia.

‘Slogging through life’

Annette Pitts, chief executive of Experience Olympia & Beyond, the area’s visitor and convention bureau, is set to experience her first Procession next week. She has guided the organization for about three years and has learned that Procession is the “quintessential Olympia event.”

Without the Procession’s celebration of life, art and beauty, it feels like we have been “slogging through life,” she said.

Pitts said she plans to send a staff photographer to the Procession to “immerse themselves” in the event. Afterwards they plan to learn more about where people came from and what they did while here, she said.

The Olympia area typically draws from a region about 50 miles away, Pitts said.

So what can locals and visitors expect on Saturday? Economic Development Director Reid, who has visited the Armory studio where some of the Procession critters are being created, said to expect the fantastic.

“It’s going to blow everyone’s mind,” he said.