Federal Way marks 20 years of cityhood: First mayor reflects on incorporation, city plans weekend of activities Feb. 26-28

'Connections' host Natalie Rees interviews Debbie Ertel-Burris last month at City Hall.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

Debbie Ertel-Burris, Federal Way's first mayor, played a key role in leading the area toward incorporation in 1990. Her efforts helped form the underpinnings of Federal Way's cityhood campaign.

Ertel-Burris' entry into politics is connected to the arrival of St. Francis Hospital. When she needed to drive her sick daughter to Auburn because Federal Way had no hospital, Ertel-Burris took action.

"I really felt like something should be done," she said. She contacted the Federal Way Community Council, and the next thing she knew, she won election to the council.

She headed a committee alongside the Federal Way Chamber to bring in St. Francis Hospital. Five years after launching her quest for a hospital, Ertel-Burris once again found herself seeking emergency medical attention for her daughter. Federal Way now had a hospital, and this time, that made a difference in saving her daughter's life.

Voters rejected three previous attempts at incorporation in 1971, 1981 and 1985.

At the time, land use was the hot issue in unincorporated Federal Way. Ertel-Burris described a building boom in the 1980s that sent land use out of control. She and other local leaders wanted to incorporate in order to establish Federal Way's own codes and development regulations.

"Debbie worked for development of Federal Way for 20-plus years before cityhood," said longtime community leader David Kaplan.

Ertel-Burris was among community leaders active in picking parcels for the 1989 Open Space Bond issue, which addressed a need to preserve land for open spaces and parks.

Ertel-Burris was able to get the Seattle Times to distribute 35,000 copies of a four-page supplement seeking Federal Way citizens' input on which parcels should go on the bond issue, Kaplan said.

"We weren't about to adopt the county's sprawl and problems," she said.

After the 1989 election that created the City of Federal Way, an old unused fire station on 320th Street served as a makeshift City Hall. She remembers bringing pencils, paper and chairs from home. The first council meeting after incorporation was held at the former Coco's Restaurant.

"The gavel was plinking a spoon against a cup," she said.

Purchase of the Evergreen Airstrip, which eventually became Celebration Park, was seen as an impossible task at the time, she said.

"All we wanted to do was buy the complete piece of property," she said, knowing it would be developed in the future. "We weren't going to get another chance."

Today, Celebration Park is a major tourism attraction and moneymaker for Federal Way.

"Federal Way was fortunate to have a city council that could hit the ground running," she said. "We trusted each other."

Twenty years later, Ertel-Burris sees a few differences between now and then.

"What I really see more is what isn't here," she said, noting how the city avoided some poorly planned developments. For example, the Fred Meyer store now located at SW Campus Drive and 21st Avenue South was once at the center of a dispute in 1989. The company originally wanted to build an 85,000-square-foot store at South 312th Street and 1st Avenue South.

"We had a real battle with Fred Meyer," she said, noting that Fred Meyer was still negotiating on the eve of incorporation.

Like other Federal Way leaders, she worked long days and hours, morning and night to see the city start on the right foot.

"I had a vision for Federal Way. I jumped in with both feet," she said. "I felt strongly about making that vision happen."

Ertel-Burris, a gardening enthusiast, left Federal Way in 1996. She now lives in Ryderwood, Wash., located between Longview and Centralia, with her husband, Dick Burris.

Federal Way marks 20 years of cityhood: Activities Feb. 26-28

February 26

Honoring our Past


City Hall, 33325 8th Ave. S.

Tours of city landmarks – 1 to 3 p.m.

Tours of Federal Way City Hall, Police Department & Municipal Court – 4 to 6 p.m.

Free and open to all. Please preregister online at

City Hall Cupcake Reception, 6:30 to 8 p.m., City Hall, 33325 8th Ave. S.

The city has invited the living members of the first city council and administration to be on hand for this trip down memory lane. We’ll unveil the city’s top 20 accomplishments, be entertained by local performers and enjoy specialty cupcakes made by Chef Rob from our own Dumas Bay Centre. The Historical Society of Federal Way will do a special display of artifacts from the past 20 years. Free and open to all.

Welcome by Keith Eldridge, KOMO 4 Television

Opening: Pledge of Allegiance (Scout color guard) and "Star Spangled Banner"

Performer #1: Harmony Kings - anthem and leading "Star Spangled Banner"

Honoring our Past –“On the first day, we opened up the doors to City Hall”

Speakers: The first mayors: Mayor Debbie Ertel, Mayor Bob Stead, Mayor Mary Gates

Video tribute from first city manager, Brent McFall

Performer #2: Hispanic Singers

Celebrating the Present – “Getting things done”

Speakers: City manager/Police chief Brian Wilson lists the 20 most significant accomplishments from 20 years of cityhood

Former City Manager David Moseley

State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-District 30)

Performer #3 – Jet City Singers: “Do you know the Way to Federal Way?”

Making our Future Brighter – “Looking to the Future”

Speakers: Riley Germanis, Senior at Todd Beamer High School

Mayor Linda Kochmar

Performer #4: Korean Children’s Dance Group

Wrap Up –Keith Eldridge

Performer #5 – FW Chorale

Leading audience sing-along of inspirational and celebratory music includes “America The Beautiful.”


February 27

Celebrating the Present

Service Vehicle Displays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Parking lot to the south of City Hall

It’s a truck day and so much more! Peek inside a police cruiser. Climb on a fire truck. Meet a K-9 dog and his handler. See the bomb squad in action, check out the SWAT van. Watch garbage and sewer trucks do their thing. Learn safety tips from both fire and police personnel. See other utility equipment up close and personal. Participating agencies include:

• Federal Way Police Department

• Federal Way Emergency Management

• Lakehaven Utility District

• Puget Sound Energy

• South King Fire and Rescue

• Waste Management

The Federal Way Community Center--FREE. 1 to 5:30 p.m., 876 South 333rd Street. Swim! Climb! Play! Both the pool and the climbing pinnacle will be open in the afternoon for free. Use the Fitness Center for free, or take advantage of organized fitness events and games in the huge gym. Take a tour of the facility; enjoy free 20th anniversary cupcakes and coffee.


February 28

Making our Future Brighter

Call for volunteer projects. Kickoff of the first project on Feb. 28, time TBD

The city is challenging individuals, businesses and non-profit organizations to step up with 20 projects that will make the community an even better place to live, work and play. The city is committing to publicize the start and finish of each and every project through its own communications and by working with print and television media.

Projects should be visible, tangible and lasting. Projects may start at any time in 2010 as long as they are completed by Feb. 28, 2011. Private fundraising dollars are being sought so that each project may have $250 in seed money. However, these funds are not yet guaranteed.

Project suggestions include:

• Plantings

• Cleanups and commitments to keep areas clean for at least a year

• Repair of broken structures

• New structures that may benefit the community

• Parks equipment

A simple application form will be available on the city’s Web site. A citizen committee will choose the top 20 projects.n We will kick off the first of these projects on the anniversary of the actual day of incorporation, Feb. 28. Time and place to be determined.

For more information, visit or call (253) 835-2405.

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