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Task force to test business climate in FWay

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Since economic development topped the list of priorities at the Federal Way City Council’s annual retreat last January, gears have been turning to test the business climate in Federal Way and, if it’s too hot or cold, find ways to make it more temperate.

As part of that effort, the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Vitality Committee and the city of Federal Way’s Economic Development Committee formed the Business Climate Task Force, members of which plan to interview a handful of businesses that have closed, to find ways to retain existing businesses and to attract new business.

Meanwhile, Councilman Jim Ferrell said he still wants to see the creation of a business liaison to serve as a go-to person for business owners in distress. Ferrell said the liaison would be the person a fed-up business owner could go to when he or she was at wit’s end dealing with the city.

Most of the Federal Way City Council members have been supportive of the Business Climate Task Force, but some were less enthusiastic in earlier discussions about a business ombudsman or liaison to work as a mediator between city government and local business.

Ferrell said the goal of creating an ombudsman or liaison is “if someone has problems with city government, we’re got a process to smooth it out.”

“We owe it to our businesses to be as helpful as possible and not be an impediment. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re an impediment.,” he said. “I envision having someone walk into the stores and have a conversation, ‘Hey, how are you doing? I’m with government and I’m here to help.’ And mean it.”

Councilwoman Jeanne Burbidge pointed out that city economic development director Patrick Doherty’s job description already calls for him to be proactive in the business community. Still, Councilman Eric Faison noted the city has kept the director busy with other things, like lodging tax allocations and festivals, tourism and market videos.

But the Council also approved funding in the 2005-06 biennial budget for a part-time assistant to the director of economic development. The position hasn’t yet been filled, and council members aren’t sure exactly what role the person will play in the economic development division.

All of the recent efforts are intended to ensure the city isn’t impeding business prosperity in Federal Way. They’re also serving as gestures of goodwill on the part of the city. As with any human endeavor, “a lot of it hinges on intangible factors like personal relationships,” Doherty said. “It helps in retaining business to build relationships.”

City officials have acknowledged that, in many cases, the businesses that have left Federal Way did so for reasons outside city control: the economy, business under-performance, corporate decisions, or simple mismanagement.

City officials also pointed out the economy is improving, business is picking up again and there are more business licenses in the city now than there were four years ago.

But they’ve also noted some lessons learned from city projects that might have had a negative impact — a negative impact that, when combined with all the other negative impacts of the post-September 11 economy and the start of the war in Iraq, were too much for a small business to handle.

Take the Pacific Highway road improvement project, for example. Phase I improved the intersection of South 320th Street, once dubbed the worst intersection in the state. The improvement project widened the intersection, added high-occupancy vehicle lanes, buried utility wires, installed solid medians, added landscaping and improved the sidewalks.

But many businesses and shoppers suffered through that first phase as road workers held up traffic during the day and the project dragged on and on. Doherty said the city learned from Phase I how better to do construction to have less of an impact on business. “It doesn’t help four years ago, but we’ve learned,” he said.

Going forward, the work of the Business Climate Task Force will be to find out if there are other things the city does that hurts business, or to identify things that could help.

After conducting exit interviews with the business owners who have left Federal Way, the task force will rely on the Chamber’s two interns to distribute a questionnaire to the 2,700 storefronts in the city. The task force will prepare a business climate report based on the responses it receives to the questionnaire.

Responses to the questionnaire will help the task force and members of the Chamber and city officials to “get a feel for what the business climate is,” Chamber CEO Tom Pierson said. “We still have the affects of the recession, it could be road construction troubles ... we want to see what it really is; what, if anything, is impeding business.”

If the responses point to a clear culprit that stems from the city, “we’ll try to push it with the city,” Pierson said.

Once the report is finished, Pierson said he expects the task force will dissolve. “I don’t think this is something that needs to continue,” he said. “People on the committee have other things they want to be doing.”

Ferrell was more reluctant to identify an end to the subcommittee — “We’ve got a lot to do before we even consider dissolving,” he said — but he echoed Pierson’s comments about the need for the information before the city could do anything.

“We don’t know what kind of responses the city will get,” he said. “I don’t want to do the administrative two-step. I don’t want to go through the motions, politely agree with each other and move on. I don’t want to talk about dissolving the committee until we know what we’ve got on our hands.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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