This election cycle is over and one would think, based on the candidates’ slogans, speeches, written comments and outreach, that the sky is falling. Will Federal Way’s future be improved by our newly elected officials? Change is one constant, and the other is that governmental continuity continues.
On a national level, we know that many politicians are controlled by one of several parties and influenced more by lobbyists than constituents. Locally, those we elect are our friends and neighbors, and we want to believe they will place our community’s needs first. So, the real questions we should ask ourselves about our elected officials are: How will they represent our interests, and how do they approach problem solving within the local and regional landscape?
The Federal Way Mirror tasks itself with the challenge of trying to ascertain how our local city candidates think and will approach problems on a local level. One of this year’s questions dealt with how the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce could be utilized to facilitate economic development.
Reading between the lines of that question, the concern is that economic development is not happening in Federal Way. However, thinking that the Chamber of Commerce can do a better job than the city is a red herring. Federal Way’s economic dance card would have been full years ago if the chamber was as capable as it would like us to believe in the economic development arena.
The Mirror asked a good question, and the candidates provided answers appearing as though the city and chamber are two dogs fighting over a bone. It is a “big picture” question. Of course, the candidates pounced on the bone and placed the chamber on a pedestal of being paragons of business, economic growth and critical thought. They aren’t.
The reality is that for most chamber members to succeed, they need the city to thrive. Decisions made by local elected officials set the policy and structure for our collective success or failure. City staff implements policy as best they can. A lack of patience with city officials or results mixed with a few false starts creates community anxiety.
All cities deal with the complexities of economic change and the life cycle of companies. Communities often see their job creators and providers succeed, fail or leave in real time. City government is designed to be the long-term constant.
Remember, before municipal incorporation, Weyerhaeuser built Federal Way’s economic dance hall, and they did not see a long-term profit in keeping it going for themselves. They had been leaving for years, and as they left and turned out their lights, Federal Way dimmed.
Frustration No. 1 is that the city has not proven itself to be a consistent economic development driver in trying to fill to the void. Frustration No. 2 is that some believe the chamber, having a membership core of self-interested businesses and smart business people, can do a better job than the city. Federal Way residents are missing the magnitude of the challenge.
In real estate terms, location is everything. Federal Way’s great location comes with regional problems. As a suburban city, it is challenged with a 15 percent poverty rate and schools that perform at average levels or below, as rated by Great Schools. This city operates at a perception disadvantage. Federal Way is not alone. Auburn, Des Moines and Kent have similar poverty and school ratings. Collectively, the south Puget Sound region has an economic attractiveness problem.
If you were a major corporation, residential developer, midsize company, university or a small business, would you invest in Federal Way? DaVita has chosen to make Federal Way its corporate home. Abbe Winery has just opened for business. Two very different companies, and they found Federal Way attractive for their future.
Will Federal Way reward them for their risk? We need to know that “dance hall Federal Way” is really open to potential economic dancers.
For companies or entrepreneurial startups to see value in Federal Way, they have to look beyond immediate shortcomings and see themselves in the middle of a great opportunity. This is a diamond in the rough opportunity.
Economic development will be slow and painful until all parties involved understand the limits and strengths of their roles. First and foremost, the residents and chamber members need to understand the city holds many of the keys needed to open the dance hall.
The city needs to be smart about its choice of keys and potential dancers. The chamber’s role is providing support and the essential community energy necessary for keeping the dance hall open and lights on. We need to look beyond the bone.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.