In 2017, George Peterson, seen here with Shyla the dog, purchased Peninsula Nursery with the vision to create a place for community. Now he’s facing backlash from community members for his support of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s medication-assisted treatment facility and has seen his business drop “significantly” in the past month. Karen Willcutt started as a real estate broker in November 2018 with Town & Country in Sequim. She’s experienced drug addiction herself and seen it in her family. Willcutt recently stepped down from a leadership role with the group Save Our Sequim in opposition of placing a medication-assisted treatment facility in Sequim because her workload increases so much. Sequim Gazette photos by Matthew Nash

In 2017, George Peterson, seen here with Shyla the dog, purchased Peninsula Nursery with the vision to create a place for community. Now he’s facing backlash from community members for his support of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s medication-assisted treatment facility and has seen his business drop “significantly” in the past month. Karen Willcutt started as a real estate broker in November 2018 with Town & Country in Sequim. She’s experienced drug addiction herself and seen it in her family. Willcutt recently stepped down from a leadership role with the group Save Our Sequim in opposition of placing a medication-assisted treatment facility in Sequim because her workload increases so much. Sequim Gazette photos by Matthew Nash

Businesses take sides on MAT discussion

Nursery, restaurant see boycotts over stances

The divide in Sequim is becoming more evident over the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe’s proposed medication-assisted treatment (MAT) facility.

Thousands of comments permeate social media for and against the clinic. Letters to the editor are becoming more prevalent on the matter and yard signs and window placards are showing up across the area.

Some business owners have taken a stand in their own ways, too.

Both George Peterson, owner of Peninsula Nursery, and Karen Willcutt, a broker with Town & Country Real Estate, have been affected by addiction and both say they care deeply for their community. The two, however, stand on different sides of the conversation.

Peterson publicly support the proposed clinic because of its potential to support people with addiction, while Willcutt said she fears it could bring in more drugs and crime to the area.

A boycott’s impact

Earlier this summer, Peterson, 38, shared a friend’s post online in favor of the treatment center on the nursery’s Facebook page. He said this led to phone calls, messages and comments to boycott his business.

“I didn’t realize how entrenched some people were,” he said.

Peterson said he mulled whether or not he would respond online for about a week after reading online posts and speaking with community members. He decided to post again, sharing more of his story, and fleshed it out for this interview.

Peterson moved to Sequim from Port Angeles at 13. His mother was an addict who died from suicide. Addiction riddled much of his family, including his brother who accidentally overdosed last year but was revived with NARCAN (naloxone spray).

Peterson also struggled with substance abuse, saying he could’ve been an addict too.

He writes: “At the age of 13 I knew I was heading down a dangerous road, I had some amazing folks get recertified to be foster parents and I stopped running and made a choice to get better.”

In Sequim, Peterson said, he waited 30 days for a bed at a drug and alcohol inpatient treatment facility, but it was in Lacey.

“Some will be lost before they even get a chance to get the help they are seeking, that’s fact,” Peterson writes. “We believe this facility could not come fast enough and we will support our Tribe in whatever way we can. We have concerns for sure, just like many of you … But we choose life, we choose love, we choose trying to help folks that need it.”

Better balance

Peterson’s second post has reached nearly 40,000 people, and said his business has “significantly” declined since then. While August is traditionally slow, he said conditions should have brought in an uptick with cooler weather, no forest fire smoke, a better inventory system and the nursery looking clean.

“From that perspective, you think you’d see the numbers climb,” he said.

But after some consideration, which Peterson said has been months, he listed the nursery property for sale through Brody Broker, a MAT opponent who has spoken at public forums about his opposition.

Peterson’s hope is to lease the property back from a potential owner for five years and go from there.

He plans to remain in Sequim and wants a better balance between work and home.

“I really need a more balanced life,” he said. “I want to slow down and have a work-life balance where I’m not working 16 hours every day.”

The fallback from his online posts did factor into his decision to sell, he said.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt by the boycott on a personal level,” he said.

“I guess I had my vision of what Sequim was too. I’m deeply shocked by seeing the division in our town.”

Mayberry to Sequim

After two years on the road and looking for a new place to call home, Willcutt, now 57, found Sequim and moved here in June 2017.

Nearly two years later, she was shocked to find out a MAT clinic may come to her new home.

“I just moved away from that,” she said.

Willcutt’s family lived in Seal Beach, just east of Long Beach, and it’s branded by locals as “Mayberry by the Sea.”

She had plans to list it for around $1.2 million but felt nostalgic, she said, and decided to wait. Six months later, a MAT clinic was finished, and a hotel converted into subsidized housing nearby.

Willcutt said the sale lost more than $300,000 because crime went up in her area after the increase in drug availability.

The tipping point for her opposition to Sequim’s MAT clinic, she said, is its proposed location near senior housing facilities by Ninth Avenue.

“I was enraged; I have so much respect for the older people in our community. I absolutely know their safety is in jeopardy,” Willcutt said.

She said a MAT clinic would increase risks.

“From my perspective, as an addict, I know how addicts think and how drug dealers think,” Willcutt said.

“I’m absolutely aware there are all kinds of drugs and dealers already here, but it won’t be to the proportions that it will be if this MAT comes in. This is on the radar for drug dealers. They know if they are anywhere nearby, they’re going to increase their business.”

According to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s Healing Campus webpage, it states there are multiple ways officials plan to prevent issues, such as each patient must follow conduct rules. If issues do arise, tribal officials said putting up fencing, installing security cameras, and more could be possible.

Sharing her story

Since age 40, Willcutt said she’s been clean from cocaine after 22 years of off-and-on abuse.

“I’ll be recovering for the rest of my life,” she said. “Every day is a choice.”

At its heaviest point, Willcutt said, she had a cocaine habit estimated at about $110,000 a year and associated with heroin addicts.

“Addicts feel safe with other addicts,” she said.

Her addiction began around 18 and escalated in her mid-20s. She was hospitalized twice and weighed 87 pounds at one point.

She got free drugs from patrons while working as a bartender and from a friend who received a large sum from an auto insurance claim.

“We burned through $400,000 in five years with her money,” Willcutt said. “I ended up living in her driveway in my car. I didn’t see my parents for four years.”

At 28 she hit her rock bottom, Willcutt said, but it took her another 12 years and three out-of-state moves to quit for the last time.

“Wherever I went, it kept finding me, but the truth is I kept finding it,” she said.

Counselors and support groups helped to a point, she said, but in that 12-year span she said it was a willingness of not wanting to die.

“Sometimes I’d go two years, but then it becomes a good idea again (to use in that 12 years),” Willcutt said. “It’s a never-ending battle. You can’t reason an addict into quitting. You can’t force an addict into quitting, and you can’t love an addict into quitting. An addict has to hit their own rock bottom; whatever that is for them, and it’s surprising how low that can be.”

Passion for salsa

Leading to his posts, Peterson said he felt he couldn’t stay silent. He felt there was rhetoric from some MAT opponents online saying racist and bigoted things towards Native Americans and addicts.

“Some folks are talking about these (addicts) as if they’re zombies,” he said. “I understand that because some of them are, but they’re people and they’re broken people. They need love and encouragement.

They also need to make a choice for themselves because that’s where it starts. I don’t believe in enabling. Those people need to make a decision to be clean.”

Peterson said he’s not trying to look like a saint through his actions.

“God gave me a voice,” he said. “I can choose to remain silent. I can choose neutrality for the sake of profits or I can do what is right,” he said.

Peterson said he doesn’t regret his posts but feels bad it might have created uncertainty for his employees from blow-back of his words.

Peterson also disagrees with boycotts in general.

One of his business’ posts shows him eating at Jose’s Famous Salsa, a business that posted a “Save Our Sequim” sign, in mid-August.

Recently, the business’ owners posted online that the Longhouse Market and Deli stopped carrying their salsa without explanation and they presume it’s over a difference of opinion on the MAT clinic.

Jamestown S’Klallam representatives did not return phone calls for comment on this story.

Angee Conklin-Garcia, co-owner of the restaurant, said in an interview that by posting online her intent was not to encourage people to boycott local businesses but rather show that it’s happening.

She and her husband Jose Garcia chose not to comment further.

Peterson said he wouldn’t dismiss the couple’s concerns or its business over a difference in opinions.

“These are people who have done an incredible job building a brand and having a product most of us enjoy,” he said. “We’re supporting a family and a small business that made huge sacrifices to be in Sequim. Frankly, there’s no cause that’s ever going to compel me to give up chips and salsa from Jose’s.”

Home

Willcutt, one of the original members of the Facebook group, Save Our Sequim, was a board member for the group until a few weeks ago because her workload increased significantly, she said.

“I just don’t have the time,” she said. “More and more people are calling to list. They’re scared.”

She feels if the MAT comes, she may need to move, too, from her home between Sequim and Port Angeles.

“I’ve already moved once from Mayberry by the Sea because of (drug treatment facilities),” Willcutt said. “I don’t want to live in a crime infested neighborhood, which is already a great place for the homeless to live near Robin Hill Park. I carry pepper spray with me when I go walking.”

Throughout her life, Willcutt said her stepsister went in and out of MAT clinics at least eight times and she remains a heroin addict today.

“Even when it was court ordered, she would still get high,” Willcutt said. “She would hide (the medicine) and go outside the building and sell it for heroin. It was nothing more than a free hit per day.”

Willcutt said she understands why the MAT sounds like a compassionate idea but “I believe the only people who would be for the MAT program are profiteers or people who don’t understand what’s coming,” she said.

“I’d give it (my career and home) all up 100 percent to prevent it from coming here … I absolutely believe we are on the right side of this. It’s a fight worth fighting.”

Issues below the surface

Peterson said he believes Sequim’s addiction issues spread for generations.

“People want their cookie cutter bubble of what they perceive Sequim to be,” he said. “The reality is it’s not what they think it is. There are a lot of people struggling here.”

He said some people need extra help when it comes to changing their lives especially with addiction.

“Some people are incapable of being able to go through the withdraw process. They need help,” Peterson said.

As for the tribe’s stake, he feels “they have a vested interest in Sequim.

“They have the most to lose by seeing this facility go sideways on them, so it would stand to reason that they want to do it right,” he said.

Listening to varying viewpoints is important through the process too, he said.

“The concern that folks have, it’s real — it’s not to be dismissed,” Peterson said.

“Those voices should be heard, but we should do that a table with a commonsense approach. The beautiful thing about life is being able to disagree with people. Just because we have disagreements doesn’t mean we have to have division.”

Yes or no

Neither Peterson or Willcutt favor boycotts.

“I do not think we should boycott each other,” Willcutt said. “It is our right as Americans to state our opinion publicly and it’s up to individuals what they’re going spend their money on and do.”

“(Save Our Sequim) doesn’t support boycotting and I’m not personally boycotting,” she said.

Peterson said boycotts create a lot of uncertainty for businesses like his especially through the winter.

“With small businesses, unlike big box retails, they cannot absorb the impact of a boycott,” he said.

“It will cost jobs and potential businesses to close their doors. If a boycott continues at my place, the business will close. My business survives on people buying plants and hiring us for landscaping.”

He encourages people to end boycotts regardless of how they feel about the proposed MAT.

“Regardless of how it pans out for me, I’d like to see our town reunite and be stronger,” Peterson said.

For more information on the proposed MAT facility, or Healing Campus, visit jamestownhealingcampus.org.

For more information on Save Our Sequim, visit www.saveoursequim.org.

For more information on the City of Sequim’s Frequently Asked Page, visit https://www.sequimwa.gov/866/Medication-Assisted-Treatment-MAT-Center.

Reach Matthew Nash at mnash@sequimgazette.com.

More on the MAT

• Anji Scalf, executive director of Sequim-Dungeness Chamber of Commerce, said they have members who oppose the MAT clinic in general and/or its location, and who favor it, but the chamber of commerce’s bylaws prohibit it from taking a stance.

She said a few businesses reported in that a representative(s) was being forceful but no over the line about installing Save Our Sequim signs in business windows.

“From what I’ve seen through this conflict, if you take a step back, you can see a lot of people who really care about this community,” she said. “Everyone involved in this conflict really deeply cares about Sequim.”

• Last week, Lisa Hopper, Sequim code compliance officer, said she’s only removed two Save Our Sequim signs from right-of-way in the city and that they were at the request a business owner because the signs were in their right-of-way unauthorized. Hopper said she contacted the group so they could retrieve their signs.

She said city officials are treating the signs similarly to political signs and that the only ones she’d remove would be in the city’s right-of-way, like roundabouts and medians. Any other signs taken down, she said, were removed by business owners or citizens.

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