Today we are going to have a discussion with my friend “Doctor Community.”
Keith: Doc, looking at your crystal ball, please share your thoughts on improving Federal Way’s economic future post-COVID-19.
Doc: Keith, your community’s economy has some challenges post-COVID-19, but honestly your economy was struggling before the pandemic and many residents don’t have a sense of its current direction or how they are benefiting. They just live in your city on a day-to-day basis with no personal investment.
So, if your city is going to thrive post-COVID-19, residents and businesses must become more invested and challenge your civic leaders to find a different path forward. Everyone needs to be willing to ask and answer the questions: “Why should Federal Way be valued as a place to live, do business, raise a family, get a K-12 education, launch careers and be experienced as a lifestyle city?” Define your answers individually and collectively and then pivot to dealing with how to achieve those outcomes.
Keith: Wow, what a great challenge. Doc, at one time that was an easy answer. We were the corporate headquarters for Weyerhaeuser and they provided a sense of prosperity and purpose. Since they left six years ago, our city has been watching our jobs and potential spiral downward. Currently we are a city with 40 percent vacant retail and office space and our business climate and quality of community feels like it is declining.
Doc: Keith, that provides some historical perspective, but getting your municipal leadership to answer my suggested questions and talking to them generally about their answers is difficult because they get consumed in the problems of the day and may have been facilitators in creating some of them. In the present, they go from crisis to crisis with little understanding of consequences, but seek appreciation for their efforts, especially when it is election time. Councilmembers jump into any problem process with their notions of a solution, convince their peers to spend money on a quick cure — mostly to mollify the public — and real change rarely happens. Reality check: homelessness at current levels will not go away anytime soon. It took years to get here and it will take time to unwind. Sheltering homeless and rehabbing the addicted are critical steps, but getting people to change their behavior is a difficult proposition, and at the moment, it feels like they have more rights than the rest of us. The concern I see is, your city seems to be trending toward a tipping point of supporting too much affordable subsidized housing. More housing is needed and that includes affordable units, but when the solution gets out of balance with maintaining a solid middle class residential base, it takes years longer to find a path forward to bring a city back to prosperity.
Keith, please realize that Weyerhaeuser’s goal when they invested in Federal Way was to have a prosperous and appreciated community. They promoted their developments — albeit with a laissez faire oversight approach intending positive growth would occur. Regardless, we can’t undo the past, so your city’s challenge is understanding your current infrastructure and services and figuring out ways for upgrading them to interplay with the community’s changing demographics and needs.
Please take a moment to comprehend that your city has become economically inequitable, comprised largely of working poor intermixed with neighborhoods of discernible success.
Preparing for our discussion, I reviewed your city’s quick facts on the recently released 2020 census. One of the critical economic data points capturing the depth of Federal Way’s challenge is your household median income of $67,300. King County’s income for the same data point is $95,000. From the perspective of per capita income, your city has an income level of $31,750 per individual and the county’s number is $52,450.
Keith: Doctor, those sound like tough numbers, but what do they really mean?
Doc: Well, just understand that half of your city’s household incomes are below $67,300 and a family making less than $72,000 in King County is considered low income. This means many of your residents are financially stressed and if they have children, they need help. Just know that many of your city’s families and residents are experiencing food, rent, income, child care, transportation, health care and job insecurity.
Keith: Is there a quick fix for any of those challenges?
Doc: No, but Federal Way needs to figure out if it can do a global reset and become focused on providing cost-friendly family services and improving job opportunities. Your city can’t be what it was, and now that it is what it is, it will be difficult to alter your entrenched community mindset.
Consider that for years, your city did not consistently pass school bond/levy efforts, and the consequences are that people who valued education left and many who may have wanted to locate here for business or to raise a family stayed away. Tote Maritime Alaska moving their headquarters to Tacoma due to an uptick in crime and homelessness near their office is an example of the challenge facing Federal Way.
Understand that crime, drugs, increasing homelessness and several years of politically-charged anger and frustration have led to your spike in crime. It is not just your city, but your city’s response must not be solely the typical knee-jerk of needing more police. Lowering crime for the long haul requires more intervention services, treatment facilities, youth recreation programs and school system support to undo years of neglect and bad choices.
On a statewide basis, the laws lean toward being punitive for any perpetrator, but for crime to become less of an issue, your efforts need to shift toward early education, family support, latchkey programs, troubled youth intervention, behavioral management and rehabilitation. Otherwise, your state and city will keep people trapped in cycles of crime and recidivism at a much higher cost to us all.
Keith: Well, Doc, thank you for those observations. Do you have any closing thoughts about our future?
Doc: Yes. Federal Way can create a great future for itself, but it has to figure out what it wants to be as a city and evolve from being the white privilege suburb it once was. It has to value diversity, child care and education and ensure that all students are succeeding at a high level. Then your focus becomes infrastructure — physical as well as cultural, the arts, establishing unique gathering places and embracing values that elevate people and community. Businesses will come and people can grow into prosperity when the right resources are present. I’ll check back in a few years — good luck!
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.