In a 6-1 vote, the Federal Way City Council rejected a recommendation to move the city's Holiday Tree Lighting event from The Commons mall to the Federal Way Community Center.
The lone yes vote on the move was Councilmember Susan Honda. The issue sparked a lively conversation, with Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell leading the charge on saying no to the proposed move.
"I've expressed my concern about having it in this area (the Community Center) … it's in an area somewhat off the beaten path," Ferrell said at the council's Sept. 17 meeting. "I do think if you're going to have a celebration for our community, it should be in the middle of our town. I think where we've had it at the mall represents, in my opinion, probably the best location."
"I'm afraid that if we put it at the Community Center, we're going to have five people and some council members. I think there's a real potential for this thing to turn into nothing. I think this is a community event and it should be in the center of our town," he added.
Councilmember Dini Duclos said she mostly agreed with Ferrell, but did note that the location at The Commons mall has been somewhat problematic in the event's two previous years.
"I would also drive by there when the tree was in there, and from 320th, you could not see the tree from the road," Duclos said. "The Community Center would certainly be seen by a number of people who go to the Community Center every day, and maybe some people who use that road to cut across to get to another road. But, again a lot of people wouldn't see it."
Duclos floated the idea that maybe the city could open up the offer to other downtown businesses that have frontage on South 320th Street. One of the reasons for this topic is the fact that The Commons is undergoing a number of construction projects and parking has become tight. Adding the tree lighting ceremony this year would only increase that congestion.
"If there was some other place we could put it, maybe another facility that wants to have the tree and has frontage on 320th, that you could see from your car, I think that might be good," Duclos said.
Councilmember Kelly Maloney said the impression that was given at the committee level discussion about the topic was that the move to the Community Center for this year would be "transitional."
"The thing that sold me on agreeing to it is that it was transitional, so that at some point, there'd be some development in the near future in the city center/downtown core where we could put a much larger tree, possibly, and have a real celebration," Maloney said.
Honda responded by reviewing the ceremony's history, saying that the original committee/commission level recommendation was to have the ceremony at the Community Center, but the council overrode the idea at the time.
"Our initial thoughts that first year was that we'd do it at the Community Center. We'd use the Community Center for the indoor part of the program, and then there are four trees outside…that could be decorated. And we'd highlight the Community Center and what programs are there. It's a city facility," Honda recalled. "The council at that point decided they wanted it at The Commons, so it was moved to The Commons."
Ferrell said that moving the event in its third year seemed like a poor idea, and that the possibility of Federal Way losing another community event loomed large in his mind.
"This community has already seen our yearly parade disappear, our MLK event is almost disappeared," Ferrell said. "This is for the entire community. I guess I don't understand the logic of taking this event, something we're trying to develop, and removing it from the center of town and plopping it inside a building miles away from downtown…It'll be done in near anonymity. It's a real shame, because it's a Christmas tree lighting. It's supposed to be outside."
Councilmember Bob Celski sided with Ferrell, saying a move this year will just create confusion in the community about the event.
"Consistency means a lot, and even though we just started this a couple of years ago, to move this to an interim location, and then with the idea to move it to a final destination, maybe back downtown, I think adds confusion," he said.
Councilmember Diana Noble-Gulliford mentioned the fact that cities like Seattle and Bellevue have "downtown associations" that are responsible for such events, and suggested Federal Way should look into creating a similar entity for this event.
"I would consider voting for this staying downtown…with a caveat that perhaps the city council or one of the committees work hand-in-hand with the Chamber of Commerce and the businesses, not just the mall, but the businesses that are downtown, to begin an organization, with the purpose of having this event downtown every year," she said.
Honda said she would like the mall to have financial input for the tree lighting event.
"They have not paid for anything for this," Honda said of the mall. "They haven't paid for the lights. They haven't paid for the staff to put the lights up."
Public Works Director Cary Roe said mall workers damaged the city's lights the first year of the event during the removal process.
"The first year it was held at The Commons mall, we were asked to zip-tie the LED lights to the tree to make it more stable. We agreed to put them up, they agreed to take them down," Roe said. "They went through the process of cutting some of the zip-ties, and I'm not sure what the logic was, but they ended up cutting the LED light strings to get them off the tree. So that was a little disappointing, and we did purchase (new) lights the second year."
"The city should not bear the entire cost of this if it's going to stay downtown," Honda reiterated.
City staff is expected to report back to the council on Oct. 1 regarding the feasibility of keeping the tree lighting event at the mall.