Exploring Federal Way as a new frontier

Overcoming Federal Way’s general apathy toward exploring itself as a new frontier is essential for shedding the effects of being a hollowed-out corporate company town.

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston

“Space the Final Frontier” is a phrase many of us know from “Star Trek.” Bringing our gaze down to earth, the real frontier that needs our attention is being kind, caring about our neighbors, neighborhoods, creating a community that works for residents, businesses and is concerned about our quality of life.

Our imagination lets us believe that exploration is vital to our existence. Are our community leaders creating opportunities capable of making this city worthy of exploring as a future home base?

Federal Way is the 10th largest city in the state of Washington. At 98,000 residents we are a suburban community of homes, strip shopping centers, and underutilized office buildings. The reality is that we are a city with no sense of self, clear identity, neighborhood cohesiveness or understanding of how to become valued as a next generation destination for raising a family or launching a business.

During our education years most of us learned how to read a statistical bell curve. Federal Way’s high point on its bell curve happened years ago. Our former marque corporation, Weyerhaeuser, its business satellites and employees who built the middle-class employment marketplace that created this city’s high point on the curve are gone and still departing.

Those of us choosing to live here have an obligation to recognize that we are stuck in a descending trend line that has the potential to become a sustained economic trough. Pointing fingers at one another and playing the “he said – she said” game of community rhetoric that is common each election cycle is a recipe for exacerbating this city’s problems.

Management types often use the phrase “paradigm shift” when talking about significant transitional events or opportunities. In this town of status quo thinking, and preference for public safety services above other services means our thinking is one-dimensional. Understanding what is missing and needed for building a strong sense of place and community is what our city leaders should be exploring.

We are a city begging for answers to several questions. First, “What does Federal Way need to do to become more than it is?” and “What can our city do to capture the imagination of a new generation?”

Consultants get paid thousands upon thousands of dollars and spend countless hours across this country trying to crack the code of building a better community. They establish baseline conditions through observation, discussions with staff, elected officials, a selected cross section of community leaders, prepare comparative studies with defined target cities, analyze possibilities and write reports.

The code is rarely cracked by consultants because human behavioral responses tend to be contrarian, change adverse and fear driven. Federal Way is far enough out there to be worthy of exploration but is likely to remain a fringe city within the greater Seattle–Tacoma operating sphere as long as inertia rules our politics and imagination.

Overcoming Federal Way’s general apathy toward exploring itself as a new frontier is essential for shedding the effects of being a hollowed-out corporate company town. Exploring us as a change opportunity requires all of us to put on a space suit and enter a twilight zone of past, present and future all happening at the same time.

It is not entertainment, it is work – work most of us are ill-prepared to undertake. We prefer being trapped in the comfort zone of our personal drama, present reality, and 500 plus channels of content available on big screen TVs.

Observing our community’s behavior and engaging in discussions with our elected elites, one might conclude we have no understanding of how to prepare a community for exploration, improvement, succeeding or reaching for the stars. Council members in most communities are a collection of competing alien egos trapped by limited vision.

Councils often follow the lead of constituents or groups operating as self-serving squeaky wheels. For change to occur, we need to become better informed and understand the challenges facing our community. Exploration of ideas and possibilities is a low-cost proposition. Implementing change and building the connections necessary to reposition a city, often with assistance from consultants, is where the excitement, community growth, and return on investment are realized.

There are two galaxies that most communities explore for solutions to challenges and the future they seek. The first galaxy deals primarily with public safety, public works and jobs. The lessor explored galaxy, where city-stars begin to shine, forms around the value builders of education, diversity, economic sustainability, and service delivery. This galaxy expands exponentially when combined with a core of quality of life services built around the arts, libraries, parks, recreation, and infrastructure aesthetics.

Public safety, public works and jobs serve as foundational building blocks. However, they are not capable of creating an imagination and destination-driven community. Premier cities are built on education, diverse sustainable employment opportunities, a solid core of quality of life considerations combined with superior service delivery. These are the essentials required for building a city that people care about and are willing to invest in.

Merging these elements into a cohesive universe is what it will take for Federal Way to become worthy of exploration and a settlement frontier for a new age.

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

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