The city of Federal Way has been working towards bringing a culinary institute to the Performing Arts and Event Center since 2015.
The city started working with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe to bring in a culinary program that focused on celebrating the culture of Native Americans and other ethnicities in the local area.
However, nearly five years later, the program still has not been implemented.
This has caused residents and elected officials to ask why the program has not started, and where the state funding went that was allocated to the city towards the kitchen that would support the culinary institute.
“Is the city still committed to providing Native American culinary art institute skill education and training in the PAEC, and what is the timeline for this to begin?” Federal Way resident Dana Holloway asked during the Nov. 5 council meeting.
She also wanted to know if the culinary institute was no longer part of the city’s “PAEC vision,” how it would affect the federal funding the city secured.
In response, Economic Development Director Tim Johnson wrote a memo to Holloway Nov. 15. Johnson explained the city was able to fund portions of the PAEC construction with New Markets Tax Credits, which the city only received if they would use this project to implement some type of program that would increase diversity and employment opportunities in the city.
Johnson also discussed the three-year plan the city now has to get the program up-and-running, starting with smaller exploratory classes at the PAEC and finishing with a full-fledged culinary institute by 2023.
Former 30th District Rep. Kristine Reeves, who helped secure $1 million in state funding for the city to pay for the full kitchen, is also concerned the city has not yet started the culinary institute, which the kitchen is set to support.
Reeves is concerned about the perception that the city has been asking for money from the Legislature to accomplish this project with very little to show for it. She said it seems this program is turning into a 10-year plan, when that is not how the city marketed it to the Legislature in 2017.
“The request itself, of they way it was marketed to us as a state delegation, was that funding would go to build out the commercial kitchen in the PAEC for the purposes, or in part to support programming with the Muckleshoot Tribe around a tribal culinary arts program,” she said.
Deputy Mayor Susan Honda said that it was also her understanding the city was working to create a culinary program in 2017, but she did not hear anything more about the program until she started asking questions recently.
“I have not heard anything mentioned for well over a year,” she said, and her understanding was that the city was no longer going to move forward with a program.
During an interview with Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell and other city staff, the mayor said this was furthest from the truth.
“It was always our intention of creating the culinary institute,” Ferrell said.
The mayor said there have been delays in creating the culinary program after former Executive Director Theresa Yvonne was let go in 2018, and the 2017 capital budget was delayed until 2018.
The city originally submitted a grant request for federal funding of the kitchen in 2016, but because of the 2017 capital budget delay, the funds were not approved for the city until 2018, after the PAEC had already been completed.
Ferrell said the executive director’s departure and subsequent organizational and personnel changes, coupled with the delay in the state Legislature funds being approved, have caused this continuous delay with the the culinary institute.
Yvonne did not respond to the Mirror’s requests for comment by press deadline.
However, Ferrell added the city did not want to be delayed by the loss of the capital budget in 2017, so the city took out an interfund loan and completed the PAEC construction, including the kitchen, in 2017.
Legislator concerned over state funding for kitchen
Reeves told the Mirror she was confused why the city has not yet implemented the culinary program, since she thought the $1 million allocation of state funding the city asked for in 2017 was going to be used to complete the full kitchen to then immediately start the program.
“My understanding in 2017 was that you get this money for the kitchen, the kitchen’s up and running, the program starts,” Reeves said.
During an initial phone interview with Ferrell, he said he was confused why Reeves said this because, “The PAEC (kitchen) and the culinary institute are two separate things.”
However, during a follow-up interview with the Mirror, Ferrell claimed the kitchen and the culinary institute were not separate, but essentially two sides of the same coin.
In an email, Ferrell explained that while the $1 million the city secured from the state Legislature was for the upgraded kitchen to be utilized by the culinary institute, the money itself was only to create the full commercial kitchen.
“It has always been abundantly clear that the money is for the kitchen to be used by the Institute, not the Institute itself or its programs,” Ferrell wrote. He said at first the PAEC was only going to be equipped with a warming kitchen, “but then we realized that we better do it right, especially if we’re going to do a culinary institute.”
Although the plans changed for the kitchen during construction, the PAEC has always had a completed kitchen since the day it opened, he noted.
The city received an $813,000 reimbursement the week of Dec. 9 from the Washington State Department of Commerce for the construction of the kitchen.
Finance Director Ade Ariwoola said this money will now be used to pay back the interfund loan the city took out in 2016 to help cover costs of completing the PAEC, including a full culinary kitchen.
Reeves said this is one of the issues she found concerning about use of the state funds she helped get for the city, because her understanding was that it would be used for the planning and design of the kitchen and the program, not construction.
She said after the PAEC was completed, Ferrell approached her to ask for her help to have the $1 million reallocated to help cover costs the city incurred to build the PAEC. Reeves did not think she could support that, because “if you had the money to build it, why are you continuing to come to the state and ask for funding to pay for it?”
Ferrell confirmed the city was able to “recapture” the legislative funds without Reeves’ support.
Reeves also said both Ferrell and the lobbyist for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe told her that there were negotiations in the past about the culinary institute, but Ferrell was unaware of where those negotiations are currently.
Johnson said, however, that there are not currently negotiations with the Muckleshoot Tribe, but the city is in a “partnership” with the tribe, and the tribe is acting as a kind of advisory committee for the institute.
The Mirror was unable to reach the Muckleshoot Tribe by press deadline.
The city’s plan for the culinary institute
According to Johnson’s memo, the culinary institute will be completed in three phases in a “crawl, walk and run format.”
He describes the first phase as “to create an ongoing effort to educate the Puget Sound community about present-day issues on food and nutrition.”
This begins in 2020 and includes an annual series of lectures on food and nutrition.
The purpose of this phase, Johnson said, is to raise public awareness of the traditional and indigenous food movement, to improve the quality of life for Federal Way residents and to highlight the future of the institute’s program.
The second phase will continue in 2022 with lectures and will also include the implementation of classes on the preparation of traditional and indigenous foods.
Phase three will begin in 2023, and includes the official formation of the institute. Johnson said during this phase “the city will issue a Request for Interest to the culinary school marketplace to ascertain interest in operating a school or program to train students interested in the culinary arts.”
He said the intended outcome is to help create increased employment opportunities in the Puget Sound region, and to open up future business opportunities for entrepreneurs who have been trained at the institute.