Federal Way PACC: Let's 'light this candle' | Mayor's Memo

Mayor Jim Ferrell - Courtesy City of Federal Way
Mayor Jim Ferrell
— image credit: Courtesy City of Federal Way

Key moments in history often provide instructive lessons. As we look to a decision on whether to construct the Performing Arts and Conference Center or not, I keep thinking of the key moment in the American space program when the entire program, and some measure of America’s global reputation, was at stake.

It was May 5, 1961 in Cape Canaveral. Astronaut Alan Shepard sat in a constricted windowless capsule atop eight stories of liquid rocket fuel that could either launch him into space and into the history books, or blast him into pieces. President Kennedy’s space program was on the brink of disaster. Months of launch delays had allowed the Soviets to beat America to space, putting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in orbit just weeks before Shepard’s scheduled flight. A string of high profile, explosive rocket test failures in previous weeks had further dented American’s confidence in NASA and left NASA engineers nervous about the possibility of spectacular failure during Shepard’s planned space launch.

That morning, as Shepard lay on his back in his cramped Freedom 7 capsule, NASA checked every launch system, then checked again and again. They ran Shepard through his launch procedures and flight checklists over and over. Ground control agonized over potential problems, stretching a 10-minute countdown into a four-hour hold.

As the clock approached T-minus two minutes and 40 seconds, engineers found that fuel pressure was running high in the 66,000 pound Redstone rocket and they paused. As ground control debated scrubbing the launch, Shepard calmly interceded, telling mission control to “… Fix your little problem … and light this candle.”

From that bold decision, the American space program literally got off the ground, surpassed the Soviet space program and eventually reached the moon eights year later. What Shepard realized that morning was that they could always find a reason to scrub the launch. They’d been through all the systems checks. The rocket was ready. The astronaut was ready. They needed a moment of boldness and he provided it.

Our city needs its own moment of boldness as we approach a “go or no go” decision on the downtown Performing Arts and Conference Center. Like Shepard stuck in that rocket, our downtown has been stuck on the launchpad for years as we’ve debated the center. It’s time to push the launch button.

Two weeks ago, the Blue Ribbon Panel – a dream team of nine local experts in finance, banking, hospitality and related areas – delivered their verdict on the center. They found that the project is financially viable; it can be built and operated within the city’s existing financial resources – without new taxes and without impacting other programs. Just as importantly, they found that the proposed center would significantly boost downtown economic development.

The panel’s economic benefits subcommittee found that the facility and its hotel partner would generate $59 million in construction-related spending and 338 jobs. The ongoing operations of the center would create $3.2 million in spending and 29 ongoing new jobs. More importantly, the panel showed that the center and its companion hotel would spur additional investment in surrounding properties. The economic spinoff from this project will begin to fill in vacant downtown buildings and attract private investment to build the downtown of the future.

When I became mayor in January, I had to ask myself what it would take for me to support the project. This was a difficult question. During my time on the Council I had consistently raised hard questions about the project. I felt that the case for building it had not been persuasively made and that financial questions remained.

As a mayor, though, it’s not enough to ask questions; I have to provide answers. I brought together the Blue Ribbon Panel to review the financials and assess the project’s economic development potential. Over three months they performed an exhaustive analysis, much like the detailed and redundant checklists that preceded any NASA launch. Their report concludes that the PACC is financially viable and will provide the economic boost to the downtown that we’ve been seeking.

President John F. Kennedy said, “There are risks and costs to a program of action but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” The time for action is here.

With the panel’s findings I am confident in recommending the City Council authorize construction of the Performing Arts and Conference Center. It’s high time to move economic development of this city forward. Our downtown is ready for launch. It is time to light this candle.

Jim Ferrell is the mayor of Federal Way.


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