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City must decide economic development future

"The city must decide this fall how to handle economic development issues in the future.That decision could be a crucial factor in whether Federal Way's downtown plan takes off or founders, say city leaders and city-hired consultants.This summer, the city started a multimillion-dollar push to create an easy-to-identify downtown. Eventually, the city wants the downtown to have a mix of retail stores, condominiums, office buildings and hotels.To make that happen, the city needs a good economic development strategy, according to Hunter Interests Inc., a Maryland-based consulting firm hired by the city.And it needs a manager or staff members who will focus on the downtown.City councilors will decide how to handle economic development in 2001 and beyond this fall. The decision will be part of the 2001 budget process, said City Manager David Moseley.Now, the city contracts with the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce for such services. The $75,000-a-year contract will expire at the end of the year. As it sifts through the city budget, the council will debate whether to bring economic development services in-house, or whether to again contract for them with the chamber or another agency. Councilwoman Jeanne Burbidge says the matter hasn't been tackled by the council yet. There are advantages to both the in-house and contract strategies, she said.It's going to be an interesting question, she said. ...It's a very crucial position.Deputy Mayor Linda Kochmar said the City Council likely will rely heavily on Moseley's recommendation, which will be contained in his budget draft. The proposed budget is due to the council on Sept. 19.Moseley declined to comment on what his recommendation will be, saying he wants to give it to the council before releasing it to others.Downtown redevelopment is a high priority to the City Council, he said. The key question is (how) can we better achieve that level of priority.If services are moved in-house, the job would be wrapped into the duties of one of two existing positions, Moseley said. As the city replaces Community Development Director Stephen Clifton, who resigned last month, it could revamp the job to focus more on economics and less on planning, Moseley said.Or, economic development could become a function of the assistant city manager, another position Federal Way is hiring for, he said.Kochmar believes the position should be moved in-house. The move would make for more direct oversight by city policy makers and the city manager as well as better accountability, she said.Former economic development executive Debra Coates, who resigned from the chamber to take a position with Washington Mutual last month, answered to a committee made up of city and chamber leaders. That process sometimes made it difficult for Coates to gain direction and accomplish city goals, Kochmar said. It also left some council members guessing as to what was being done in the economic development arena, she said.Kochmar added that a survey of surrounding cities shows that most have in-house positions.While the arrangement with the chamber worked well during the contract, she says it just makes more sense to move the position in-house.Coates says the City Council, city manager and other city staff members must be comfortable with a contract set-up if it is to work.The advantage to an in-house post is that the economic development person would be fully recognized as part of the city team, she said. This might spur quicker decisions, she said.It's hard to deliver results when so much is out of your control, she said, especially when the person providing economic development services is not perceived as a city staff person.However, an external position would allow the economic development person to operate in a semi-independent mode, said Burbidge, who sees advantages to both ideas.Coates said holding an external position was a huge advantage when she held the job.There is a built-in bias, Coates said, that when people talk to government nothing will be done about their suggestions or concerns. In her position, she often acted as a go-between to iron out concerns of both businesses and the city. For example, she spent countless hours meeting with business owners concerned about the city's new sign code, and helped set up a grant program to help some businesses replace signs. She helped other businesses gain easy-to-process loans for signs. In return, the city gained compliance with the code from many business owners who initially were upset about the change.Even when she wasn't able to make a big difference, Coates said she often was able to bridge the relationship between people in the business community and the city.When they talk to me, the outcome might not change, but they feel listened to, Coates said.Should the position be moved in-house, the city again will have to fight that bias, Coates said.In addition, because she worked for the chamber, Coates said there was built-in business support for many of the projects she worked on. That would be lost if the position was moved in-house, she predicted.Coates added that she worries the city's low staffing ratio, which means people often are assigned more than one duty, would make it difficult to keep the global perspective to do the economic executive job effectively.It's not a job to be taken lightly if it's to be done right, she said. It's a full-time job with long hours.Creating a full-time position - either by contract or in-house - might not be possible, Burbidge said. Following Initiative 695 budget reductions, cost is a factor, she said.I certainly think there is strong potential for it to be a full-time job ....(the question is) whether we decide if we have the funding to make it a full-time job, she said.I would like to see that, she said, If we are able to manage that.Kochmar disagrees.She said the position should start out as a portion of someone's job and evolve over time into a full-time position.Some of the tasks an economic development director would oversee are not in place yet, she said. For example, in its report, Hunter says little hope exists of revitalizing the downtown without a business improvement district (BID) - an active group of business and property owners who meet regularly and oversee efforts. While the city cannot create such a non-profit group, it could - and must - support one if it forms with an experienced staff whose sole responsibility is to manage the downtown, according to Hunter.However, Kochmar said, There is no BID yet to provide backup for. "

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