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Federal Way Mayor-elect has vision for revitalizing city, new PACC initiatives
Jim Ferrell didn’t smoke.
A self-described straight-laced student, Ferrell had a list of things he didn’t do — sticking up for his fellow students at Yelm High School wasn’t one of them.
So when Ferrell lost the election for junior class president, he dusted off the devastation of losing and found a new way to help students.
“I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink — very straight-laced. But there were a lot of kids who wanted to smoke in high school,” recalled Ferrell, now 47. “So here’s this little square who was a good student and an athlete and I become this proponent of a smoking area at school and making sure there was a demarcation.”
Ferrell began attending and speaking up during school board meetings.
“We really started making progress on this smoking area and people really started noticing and I took on other issues in regard to bullying and curriculum development,” he said. “So even though I’d lost this position for junior class president, I became even more involved in reform in the school.”
By his senior year, he ran again for student body president and he won.
“I just remember that moment because I had been on the outside for so long and then walking up to the podium in this little theater in Yelm High School and all of a sudden I’m like, wow, now it’s on me. Now I’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do and I just remember that transition,” recalled Ferrell, who will officially take his new seat as mayor of Federal Way on Jan. 1, 2014. “I’m in that moment now.”
From Federal Way to football
Ferrell has fond memories of growing up in Federal Way, where his family owned a horse farm.
As a boy, he played with his identical twin brother Jeff in the Hylebos Creek, once “catching” a salmon.
“I have this distinct memory of grabbing this huge fish by the gills, dragging it all the way up to the house and … my mom goes, ‘Oh my God, what is this,” Ferrell laughed during a recent interview at the Black Bear Diner. “What we didn’t realize was this fish had come upstream to spawn. So here’s this dead fish on the side of the stream and we thought we caught it.”
His father died of a heart attack at the age of 43 when Ferrell was 9 years old. He later moved with his mother and three siblings to Yelm, where he became captain of the football team and graduated from Yelm High School in 1985.
When his goals of getting into West Point didn’t pan out, he ended up walking on the University of Washington football program as a freshman.
At 190 pounds, Ferrell learned to play hard. Trying to get the late coach Don James’s attention during one practice, he flew down the field and collided with another player with such force that their helmets flew off.
A fellow walk on shouted, “This man’s a psycho,” Ferrell recalled. “That became my nickname. That kind of thing is what I did for four years. I may have been a walk on, but when I stepped on the field I acted like I was 10 feet tall and 300 pounds.”
By his sophomore year, he started playing during games. But he also suffered one of the most devastating setbacks of his life during that time when he tore three knee ligaments during a practice.
“When I finally wake up, Don James is sitting by my hospital bed, so that meant a lot,” he said, choking up. “I thought I was done. I thought I’d never play again.”
But after several months of rehabilitation, he was playing football again. After finishing his last season, he was recognized as the “most inspirational” player by his teammates, and was awarded the prestigious Guy Flaherty award.
Ferrell graduated from Gonzaga Law School with a jurors doctorate in 1993 and went on to intern for then Vice President Dan Quayle and served as a legislative staff member for Pete von Reichbauer, a former state senator who Ferrell credits as a frequent source of guidance.
Ferrell was elected to the Federal Way City Council in 2003. And similar to his high school experience, over the past decade he says he’s “been on the outside, to a degree.”
He led the effort to change the city’s form of government to an elected mayor in 2009.
“You would have thought I was going to try to outlaw cats and dogs,” Ferrell said, noting residents needed an elected mayor who was truly accountable to the public. “People thought I was trying to change the form of government for my own benefit.”
He ran for mayor in 2010 and lost to current Mayor Skip Priest. During the most recent election, he unseated Priest after running on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 slogan “We can do better.”
“I have a plan,” Ferrell said. “And I have the sense of urgency to accomplish it.”
Ferrell is currently working out of an office space at the Agency Center Building in Federal Way. He said he hasn’t heard from Priest during his mayoral transition, but “I know he’s really hurt; this is incredibly hard for him.”
Ferrell plans to “hit the ground running” when he begins the position next week. He has several ambitious goals but the most challenging one he said will be “bringing the factions of this community together.”
“Sometimes elections are about dividing people and trying to get one more vote than the other person,” he noted. “But policy is about addition, it’s about bringing people together and that is something that I’m very attuned to.”
In the past, he said residents have expressed concerns that he would fire several city staff if elected as mayor.
“I’ve made the decision to keep all of the staff of the city of Federal Way, at least for now,” said Ferrell, who has already changed the city’s leadership structure by implementing a chief of staff position. “I felt it was important for continuity’s sake.”
He also plans to establish a marketing plan and make a coordinated effort to recruit businesses and associations to headquarter in Federal Way.
“We’re going to operate like our hair’s on fire,” said Ferrell, who currently works as a King County senior deputy prosecutor. “You’ve got to operate with a sense of urgency. We’re going to go out and find businesses and associations and private capital to invest in this community.”
He will also focus on retaining the city’s current businesses.
“We’ve got pockets of urban blight in our community — we need to address that and that’s what the mayor needs to do.”
He also plans to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to support businesses. He noted the city needs to pursue more funding for the $114 million triangle project that is halfway complete.
“The Legislature has about $85 million on hand for that project for us, so we’ve got to go out and get that last bit because that kind of infrastructure helps business.”
He also plans to find more federal funding for the Sound Transit light rail extension in Federal Way.
Addressing crime in the city, Ferrell said he plans to increase the Federal Way Police Department’s (FWPD) staffing level.
“We’re down to 123 commissioned officers, that staffing level needs to be at least 10 percent higher,” he said. “It’s just not acceptable that we’re at the level we’re at now.”
He said the city will pursue grant funding and will expand the FWPD “to a degree that is responsible.”
Regarding the proposed Performing Arts and Conference Center (PACC), Ferrell said he is “still working on how to thread that needle. We’ve got to be careful with our resources. We need criteria from the council on whether it makes sense from a business perspective.”
He said he will be starting two initiatives regarding the PACC that will objectively determine what the project’s facts are and whether it is sustainable.
Ferrell, who has voiced opposition to the PACC, said the city also needs to ensure the topic is “not a source of conflict and that narrative that comes from the council is not about conflict.”
“Everybody earnestly is trying to do the right thing,” he added. “There’s something about municipal politics, though, that gets really personal and sometimes somewhat divisive. I want to take that out.”