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Business closures hit downtown

"Federal Way's downtown core is seeing an ebb and flow of businesses.Freeinternet.com, a free internet service provider headquartered here, last week filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection. Freei launched service from Federal Way in December, 1998. It expanded to all 50 states in October, 1999. The opening of the company's flagship building in Federal Way heralded the beginning of the city's high profile downtown effort. Now, Freei is one of many businesses that residents and commuters to the city have seen suffer financial trouble.About two weeks ago, General Cinema at Gateway Center - across the street from Freei - closed its doors because of financial problems. Gateway Center's managers say they hope to re-open the theater soon, claiming General Cinema is obligated by contract to run the theater for at least three more years.Nearby Kokopellis coffee shop also folded late last August, as did Mexican restaurant Ole Mole on 320th Street. Although this coming and going of business is somewhat unsettling, Lynda Roether of the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce says it's part of change that she sees as vital to the city.This doesn't mean this is a bad thing, Roether said. Things change, and this opens the door for new and other items. Roether said she doesn't know the specifics of Freei's situation, but speculates it might have been victim to the recent failure of scores of internet start-up companies known as dotcoms. Like many of the failed dotcoms, Freei canceled a multi-million dollar initial public offering earlier last week. The company's website and customer service department are still operational, but Freei is not allowing employees to speak about the bankruptcy. In addition, its marketing and public relations departments have closed.However, plans for a TV sitcom starring Freei's spokesman, Baby Bob, are still in the works. Commercials with the talking baby touting the services of the company hit airwaves last February. Filming for the pilot will begin after the new year.Area businessman and developer Dan Casey said Freei's bankruptcy likely won't have a negative impact on future development in the city.I think people will attribute that more to its industry and positioning and not anything to do with Federal Way, said Casey, developer of Federal Way's Gateway Center. I think most developers looking at that would have that view in general.City officials echo Casey's view. Derek Matheson, assistant to City Manager David Mosely, said the city liked having Freei as a business partner and is disappointed by the news. However, plans for a strong, vibrant downtown core are still on track, Matheson said.As far as our long term strategy is concerned with mixed-use, mid-rise buildings, Matheson said, that's still moving ahead on schedule. "

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