Federal Way trapped in a ‘Catch 22’

We are mediocre in a region that is rapidly becoming global, educated and economically relevant. We have a mountain to climb.

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston

The paradox of Federal Way is that it is no longer a new or small suburb, and at 98,000 residents, it is struggling with what it means to be a city. Cities are complicated mixed bags, but some find a way to having cachet and direction — some don’t.

All cities have humble beginnings. Federal Way was a bump in the road when the federal government in 1850 began building Military Road, from Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham.

People want a place to call home. Some prefer a humble bump while others seek cities with higher levels of sophistication, quality schools and access to high-end employment opportunities. Suburbs were once seen as the best of both, offering a neighborly lifestyle with the benefits of being an escape from perceived urban ills and crime.

What should have been, having been a “planned community,” is a far cry from what we are — a city trapped in a “Catch 22.” People have suggested it would be easier for our city to get respect if we had a better name. Some believe, Federal Way has a Johnny Cash naming level identity crisis similar to his song: “The Boy named Sue.” Just means we have to work harder.

GreatSchools.org and Niche.com, are websites affiliated with the real estate industry that tend to rate our schools in the lower ranges. Students are getting good educations in Federal Way schools — just not in the percentages needed for higher ratings. This is not an excuse, but our schools are dealing with 66% of students defined as low-income.

The socio-economic trough present in our school population will not change until the city’s capability to attract higher-end jobs and residents with disposable incomes increases. Neither of those can happen without improvement in our schools. We have a mountain to climb.

Overcoming our lack of next-generation and higher-end jobs, business relocations, and entrepreneurial startups begins with understanding that Federal Way has a college degree gap. The number of residents living here having a college degree is 25% while King County’s overall population with a college degree is 50%.

Our 30% office vacancies, subsidized rents and lower median housing costs may be seen, by some, as opportunities. However, what is arriving on our doorstep are displacement refugees from gentrification as well as people seeking a step-up in a bargain community.

The path we are on is not attracting the resources necessary to be competitive. We are mediocre in a region that is rapidly becoming global, educated and economically relevant. We have a mountain to climb.

The mayor correctly states that crime has been decreasing over the past three years. That is great, but that is not the whole story. Federal Way ranked 67 out of 73 in a recent survey, conducted by the National Council for Home Safety and Security for safest cities in Washington State. We have a mountain to climb.

We should never blame our less fortunate residents for our city’s challenges. They need a way up, deserve kindness and require access to better jobs and education. Change for them is about acceptance, gaining job skills as well as living in a high-expectations city with low-crime so their lives over time can generationally improve.

Federal Way never anticipated its descent into poverty as an outcome when it chose not to pass multiple school levies. It happened. Reversing school poverty, becoming competitive, attracting jobs and building a solid middle-class community, requires high-preforming schools. We have a mountain to climb.

Our city was never an economic development powerhouse seeking to compete strategically for jobs and become a well-rounded dynamic community. It relied on Weyerhaeuser’s presence and its multiple business arms to plan and build this city prior to incorporation.

Post incorporation, which is also about the time Weyerhaeuser began divesting and relocating some of its businesses elsewhere, holes began to form in Federal Way’s future. The wisdom, community support and synergy necessary for filling those holes never happened. Countless school board meetings, city council sessions, service club lunches, chamber of commerce events, city commissions and committees of all kinds produced directionless complacency.

Creating a vibrant lifestyle, and community culture begins with supporting the arts and schools. The arts are essential for establishing identity and enhancing education. A community without visual art, music, theater, dance and opportunities for youth to participate in these activities — is empty. Our arts organizations are struggling and the city’s supporting efforts are dismal. We have a mountain to climb.

The “Catch-22” is that our city and school district are trapped in a circular crisis. The high-quality jobs and middle-class families needed for change won’t come until the schools improve. The city can’t help the schools improve, or improve itself, through economic development, attracting higher-end jobs, marketing and delivering higher service levels, until crime is less, the arts are embraced and its direction defined.

Neither can achieve what is needed until the low-end culture that has evolved is challenged, not valued and our expectations for success are elevated.

As a city we have chosen a “bump in the road” persona rather than positioning ourselves as a highly-resourced city capable of making a dynamic statement. Our leaders want to deliver solutions but, if our current pattern continues, we will find bottom and have nowhere to go. We have a mountain to climb.

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

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