Opinion

Cities stay afloat during economic challenge

The economy has slowed way down.

Times are tough for businesses, residents and governments. Cities are working hard to encourage economic development that not only provides needed sales tax revenue, but hopefully changes their image and upgrades their appearance.

Tukwila’s Southcenter just unveiled an impressive array of new shops, restaurants and theaters that attract regional shoppers.

Renton’s downtown remake, with its transit center hub, has provided a new appearance while retaining the charm of its antique shops. The football season has also brought Renton great publicity with the new Seahawks headquarters attractively placed next to Lake Washington.

Kent Station continues to draw shoppers from other valley towns for an afternoon or evening’s entertainment. These projects were all pretty much under way or complete before the economy started to deteriorate.

Two years ago when Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke defeated Judy Woods to replace longtime mayor Jim White, the economic development of downtown was not a major issue. The same was true last year, when Denis Law defeated Renton incumbent Mayor Kathy Keolker. In both cases, there seemed to be political consensus.

But the fourth major city in the valley, Auburn, is facing several challenges as it seeks to break through to economic success.

The pioneering Cavanaugh family hardware business on Main Street is now an empty lot serving as a stark reminder of a project gone bad.

At the same time, some members of the Auburn Downtown Association (ADA) are questioning the value of the organization’s future.

The ADA was started by city leaders in 1988 to give downtown merchants a way to jointly plan for their own growth through events, marketing and promotions. But in a controversial move two years ago, city government tied the annual ADA assessment to their business license, causing some members to question the ADA’s benefit.

Additionally, downtown icon the Sunbreak Cafe may be forced out of business, according to owner Bruce Alverson, in a land trade between city government and Stratford Company that will consolidate parcels for future development — and limit the cafe’s parking.

All the controversy led to some local businessmen apparently posting an illegal sign that said “Would the last business in downtown, please turn out the lights?”

The prank has now taken on more serious overtones as Auburn police are investigating — and council member, mayoral critic and possible mayoral candidate Virginia Haugen acknowledges some participation. The controversy has brought economic development issues to the political forefront as mayoral and city council elections loom next year.

But there are positive signs as well that could influence the city’s direction. The Auburn Regional Medical Center is scheduled to break ground on its oncology center and parking garage this month.

After that, the “tavern” block east of City Hall is expected to develop as a City Hall Annex with space for medical offices.

And the Stratford property may yet develop, although losing the Sunbreak Cafe in the process may not be greeted positively by everyone.

It will be interesting to see how Mayor Pete Lewis and the City Council handle these challenges as they move toward downtown changes. Watch closely, Auburnites — your economic and political future may be on a decision course for next year.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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