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Self-esteem one of 'biggest barriers' to downtown development

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Federal Way is well-positioned to attract the kinds of mixed-use development it wants in the city center, according to a consulting group hired by the city, but the keys to the city's success will be finding a property owner who's willing to play ball, overcoming some municipal self-esteem issues, creating a special sense of place and finding the right kinds of retailers that sell the types of things Federal Way residents want to buy.

Leland Consulting Group principal Bill Cunningham and Anne Ricker, managing principal of the Rocky Mountain office, presented some initial findings and offered a first-blush analysis to the Federal Way City Council last week based on interviews with local and regional business owners and developers.

The city hired Leland last year to conduct a retail market analysis that will determine if the demographics and income levels in Federal Way could support mixed-use development in the city center core and, if so, how the city should go about accomplishing their vision.

As part of their research, the consultants also took a look at Federal Way's competition — primarily the SuperMall in Auburn, the Westfield ShoppingTown Southcenter mall in Tukwila and the Tacoma Mall, with others included in the mix — to get a sense of where Federal Way stands against other retail developments.

The consultants found that Federal Way is poised to be competitive if city officials can get on the same page about how to go about attracting the kind of development they want and if the city as a whole can get over some identity insecurities.

"One of the biggest barriers is self-esteem," Ricker said. "No one outside Federal Way knows anything about the city's history."

Ricker said Kemper Freeman, the developer building several large projects in downtown Bellevue, called Federal Way the best-kept secret in the Northwest, and others identified the city as a "young community with an open future."

"You need to benefit from the best part of your history and move on," she said.

That's not to say Federal Way doesn't have some challenges to address.

The Leland consultants found during their study the percentage of one- and two-person households is on the low end for supporting the apartment or condominium-style development the city wants to pursue in the city center, but Ricker added, "frankly, it was not as low as we thought."

The average level of education in Federal Way was low compared to the metropolitan area as a whole, commute times to business centers were longer and incomes were lower with the exception of a few high-income areas.

Still, Ricker and Cunningham compared average incomes within a five-mile radius of the Commons at Federal Way to the same areas around the Southcenter Mall and the Tacoma Mall and made some encouraging findings. "Income in Federal Way is higher than your where you're competition is," Ricker said.

Traffic numbers in the city center are strong — Federal Way surpasses minimum numbers that developers like to see — but South 320th Street is a problem for people going downtown to shop. "When you get into the thick of it, it gets a little confusing," Ricker said.

Now that they've presented city officials with a current picture of Federal Way —  showing the bright spots along with the blemishes — the Leland consultants will come up with some strategies to help the city overcome its rough spots and attract the kind of development it wants to see.

If city officials are willing to move on Leland's forthcoming strategies, they'll be able to begin working out ways to attract mixed-use development comprising residential areas, retail establishments, civic areas and green space. Creation of a sense of place is key, Ricker said, and "the city can affect how special that place is. It's a hard road. It's hard to make the right decisions to get the best development."

City council members seemed optimistic about Leland's discoveries so far.

"The information on demographics is absolutely great," Councilwoman Linda Kochmar said. "I'm very optimistic about the development of our city as a whole."

Mayor Dean McColgan said the overall impression was "a positive report on the potential of our city. There are a lot of positive signs."

McColgan said when the city hired the Leland Consulting Group, officials were up front about wanting to know right away if the news was bad. He was pleased it wasn't. "They came back with pretty encouraging news about our city," he said.

When all is said and done, the market study will identify what the consultants call Federal Way's "story" — the demographics, growth potentials and existing strengths to market the city to the types of development city officials want to see —  and then will offer suggestions for how to bring developers in.

The consultants were optimistic, but said Federal Way's city officials are going to have to do something to make it happen.

"Even though the demographics of your two closest competitors are lower than Federal Way, those malls are attracting higher-end retailers," Ricker said. "Everybody's trying to do something. It's almost as if Federal Way has to do something."

She encouraged city officials to "get started now."

"If I was you guys and I had a willing property owner, I'd lead out with a project that was retail and residential absolutely soon," she said. "There's a market opportunity, clearly. You almost don't have a choice. What are you going to do, nothing? You can't do nothing."

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

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