Holiday season presents Centerstage fumble

Federal Way instantly loses significant cultural ground if lights go dark on Centerstage.

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston

The holiday season is here and being enjoyed. For many the official holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and ends with the celebration of ringing in the New Year.

The city of Federal Way’s New Year’s celebration started with the passage of its 2019–20 biennium budgets. Somehow its passage doesn’t generate that party feeling for most residents. It is more like listening to Uncle Henry’s endless stories about his exploits on the high school football team at a holiday dinner. In this column our mayor is an “Uncle Henry.” He is calling the plays, but doing it the same way that countless mayors across America do when rolling out a budget. The message is professional but the truth is closer to being in a losing football huddle.

Uncle Henry in his huddle with City Council says something like: “I know we are losing the revenue game, getting booed by residents, businesses, and beaten by Eastside cities on just about every front, but we balanced this budget so let’s just punt the ball and get out of here to fight another day. I will tell residents and businesses we put up a good fight, maintained our dignity and future potential.”

So, as residents and voters, should we celebrate and high-five each other believing that team Federal Way’s future is defined and secure? Our elected coach says we are doing “great.” My supposition is that this next budget is the artful-dodge play taken from the unwritten book used by political “Uncle Henry’s” and “Aunt Matilda’s” everywhere: “how to think small and look good at the same time.” Of course, hoping we don’t notice.

Yes, our mayor, as Uncle Henry, is yarn spinner. Like many of his mayoral peers, facing budget reductions, he didn’t talk about what is missing or the challenges we face. Then again, would we as residents really listen, understand or care? What is not being talked about in the messaging is that the city’s ability to play ball against better teams got kicked down the road — again.

In all budgets there are winners and losers. The budget the council passed has no real visioning and is a retrenchment of many of the city’s programs as well as a reduction of its cultural capabilities, with Centerstage aking the major hit.

This city has had a few touchdowns since incorporating. All of them were hard fought victories. The Performing Arts and Event Center, Town Square Park, Celebration Park, the Community Center as well as King County’s contribution of the Weyerhaeuser Aquatics Center are some of those touchdowns. They are core investments that are helping us be destination contenders and quality resource providers for our residents.

However, the Dumas Bay Center, with its Knutzen Theater, isn’t in the touchdown category but it has that potential. The facility needs updating. It was a smart strategic decision when purchased from the Seattle Catholic Diocese and still is.

The center has significant potential as a community resource and its theater was designed and renovated into the facility after its purchase. The theater is state-of-the-art, built to serve as host for a theater company, as well as a presentation stage.

Centerstage has called the Knutzen Theater their resident home since 2009. In June they had their contract to manage the theater complex, theater rentals and specified services, at the Dumas Bay Center, cancelled and during the contract renegotiation for theater usage, they lost use of office space, storage and had their theater usage curtailed. The show will go on, but Federal Way instantly loses significant cultural ground if the lights go dark on Centerstage.

In its budget balancing process, the city flopped on its partnership with Centerstage. The belief is that by canceling their contract and taking back management of the contracted space and responsibilities, the city will generate revenue equal to or greater than Centerstage’s management fee.

The city-Centerstage partnership was a fumble waiting to happen and now that it has, it is a loss of position for both teams. Running a theater in a city that is struggling to find an identity and rebuild a solid middle-class and business core post Great Recession has not been an easy partnership.

In spite of this fumble, there are many things to be proud of in Federal Way. However, touchdowns and scores of any kind for this city are hard earned, scarce and underappreciated.

Going forward the city needs to have a cultural arts plan that can facilitate as an economic development attractor, education supporter, identity builder, aesthetics enhancer and opportunity resource for the whole community. Otherwise, we will be left with Uncle Henry kicking artistic punts as our game plan. Stepping up to the next level is hard and it means proactively funding and supporting arts and culture as valued team members who can actually score.

Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at

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