In 2015 Federal Way will celebrate 25 years of being an incorporated city. Compared to many of its neighbors, Federal Way is a toddler. We all know you have to crawl before you walk.
Regardless of how things look today, Federal Way’s future has yet to be written. In order for us to appreciate this city’s current challenges, we need to review some of the choices made pre-incorporation.
Developers envisioned Federal Way not so much as a city, but as an opportunity to develop surplus Weyerhaeuser land. What was done 50 years ago to build neighborhoods and office parks was conceived as quality and done to the standard of the day.
In 1960, Federal Way was mostly rural with a population of about 14,000 people. Efforts to become an incorporated city were rebuffed several times in the 1970s and 80s. At the time of incorporation in 1990, Federal Way had a population of 68,000. During this 30-year unincorporated period, the city experienced a 385 percent growth with directionless oversight from King County planning officials.
Built on the ideal of minimal governance, Federal Way initially thrived as a fledgling suburb. The attraction for all new suburbs is the opportunity of purchasing a new home at low cost with easy access to new neighborhood schools.
Based on the philosophy of, “Build it and they will come,” the families came and the need for new schools challenged district resources and capabilities. Sadly, when Federal Way Public Schools entered its period of greatest need in the 1960s and 70s, the new residents of unincorporated Federal Way failed to pass multiple funding initiatives needed to support its growth and establish solid education values within the community.
What was initially attractive because it was new quickly became a challenge to manage. With the schools not able to maintain high standards, the perception became that Federal Way schools were second tier. Families with high education expectations started to choose communities that were schools and education committed — think Bellevue, Edmonds or Kirkland. Economic growth followed them as well.
Fast-forward to today and what was once bright as a shinny new penny now looks tarnished. Some cities age into a patina that have an attractive luster but Federal Way is struggling to maintain its promise as a positive alternative to urban living. Federal Way’s ability to attract suffers today because its schools are not perceived as top drawer.
Twenty-four years of being incorporated has helped reposition Federal Way for a potential growth cycle. But this city and school district are challenged by the consequences of being on the short end of numerous strategic votes, a lack of willingness to invest and a continuing undercurrent of negativity toward local governmental entities.
The stresses of the recession are waning. But the choices made over the last decade or two by Weyerhaeuser, Federal Way’s premier employer and iconic corporation, has left this city with a deeply challenged economic base. Presently this city has no clear path forward and remains insecure about its identity.
This community needs to quit hiding its head in the sand and commit to rebuilding this city based on being progressive, education focused, and building intelligently rather than accepting a continuum of low income oriented projects. It needs to support the expansion of cultural opportunities, improving neighborhood integrity and accept that its downtown core needs reinventing.
As residents, we can blame and be negative or we can choose to be part of the solution. I think the city has an opportunity next year to recognize its progress and potential by making a statement with a 25-year incorporation celebration. Let’s start presenting a new Federal Way.