Opinion

City leaders must take responsibility for arts center | Roegner

Last week, Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest unveiled his plan for downtown. It included a performing arts and conference center (PACC) at the former Toys-R-Us site, along with a park, open space, private retail and residential development at the old AMC Theatres location.

This was nothing particularly new from what has been discussed for several years.

But what was new, and important in the presentations, was a significant political shift. Priest was not in city government when the current process started to unfold. It was left over from the council-manager days and when he became mayor, Priest inherited rather than led the PACC efforts.

But last week, his administration put his endorsement and political clout on the project that could change the future of downtown. Politically speaking, the project moved from a citizen initiative to the mayor’s portfolio.

Priest now has political ownership and must convince the city council and the public that this is the direction the city should go.

For those who have complained that they don’t see a difference between the old form of government and the new strong mayor government, this is it. This is one of the things strong mayors do.

The second significant issue of the evening was the cost. At $31.7 million, the PACC would be the biggest public project in the city’s history. The bigger problem is that the city only has about half that amount, although they may be able to improve the money available through different approaches.

One of the options discussed to make up the difference would be to ask the citizens to vote for a property tax excess levy.

Punting the issue to the public releases the elected officials from direct responsibility for a project that they have kept alive for years.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the project is expensive. The surprise is that the city administration knew how much money it had and the consultants still came in at double the amount.

While obtaining voter approval might be possible, it would appear to be highly unlikely and would leave the city with more lost time, lost money and lost momentum.

Federal Way only has 10 years to get something done or the city will have to pay back the $5 million it got from the state to buy the property, with interest.

Letting the public decide is the safest political option because the mayor and council would be transferring the decision, and the accountability, from themselves to the public. But it is likely to reduce the chances of something being built.

The last issue that was noticeable during the meeting was that the council has changed. Councilmembers Kelly Maloney and Diana Noble-Gulliford are new, while Susan Honda and Bob Celski have only been on the council for two years. A majority of the council does not have a historical connection to the project and they seem skeptical. One councilmember suggested an advisory vote before the council takes any action. Councilmembers Dini Duclos and Jeanne Burbidge still sound like supporters, but Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell was clearly troubled by the size of the price tag.

If City Hall leaders really want to jump start economic development downtown, the answer isn’t a public vote. Honda raised the logical question: Can the consultants fine-tune and reduce the cost in a manner that still makes it possible to move forward on the PACC without losing more time? That would result in a smaller project or possibly one project done in two stages. The consultants said the project’s cost reflected community and city input. That probably is true because we always want more than we can afford.

If the PACC supporters in the community really want something to happen sooner rather than later, they are going to need to compromise. Downtown desperately needs a project that can motivate private investment. We have already spent several years just getting to this point.

The next key moment is the mayor-council retreat on March 9. The next few weeks will be a test of mayoral leadership. Can Mayor Priest find a way to get the council to commit to the next set of expenditures to keep moving ahead, and can he do it within available resources and still keep the arts community’s support? If a public vote remains part of the discussion — or worse, a council requirement for moving ahead — the elected officials will be politically safer, but construction will be a lot farther off.

Not an easy goal. But we elect people to lead, not push decisions back to the voters. And against the backdrop of an election year for the mayor and three council members? The stakes just got higher.

 

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