Federal Way waits for rebirth | Bob Roegner

With many public budgets facing their third year of cutbacks in services and staffing, anything that creates “jobs,” “growth” and “economic development” has started to rival public safety in its level of importance to local government.

With many public budgets facing their third year of cutbacks in services and staffing, anything that creates “jobs,” “growth” and “economic development” has started to rival public safety in its level of importance to local government.

Many cities are competing against one another to provide incentives to lure the next company looking to move. Other cities are buying land themselves and requesting proposals to help stimulate the local economy.

But where are we going?

Renton lived up to its motto and was “ahead of the curve” with its downtown shopping, transit and condominium development. The same can be said for Puyallup, and everyone wants to have the next Kent Station with its attractive shops, meandering streets and stylish appearance.

But while those efforts are as hampered as anywhere else by the current development climate, the facilities are there and will flourish when the economy improves. Other cities, in their zeal to compete, have made decisions that in retrospect may not look as good, or have guessed wrong on the timing.

Burien’s downtown has had a remarkable resurgence that may still pay off. But its downtown cornerstone condo development next to the combined City Hall/library sits as a reminder of what may be, not what is.

In Auburn, despite significant unrest about the price tag, city leaders are trying to combine downtown properties in a way that will provide a future opportunity similar to a Kent Station development.

But in Federal Way, the coffee shop debate is different. Now that the developer for the Twin Development high-rise project has missed yet another and likely the last deadline for completing the purchase of the city-owned property, they ask, did City Hall bet on the wrong horse and lose valuable time? Is there an alternative? And why does our downtown look pretty much like it did 10 years ago? It’s hard to ignore the improvements in surrounding cities. And, what will be the cost to catch up?

Efforts to build a modern downtown have been going on for several years with apparently little success. Prior to the Twin Development proposal, a “U Village” concept, which had some community support, was considered but didn’t seem to go anywhere.

With the Twin Development failure, the pressure is on Mayor Skip Priest and the Federal Way City Council to find answers. A city this big, and with as much to offer as Federal Way, should have an attractive vibrant downtown that gives shoppers a reason to spend locally.

There has been some movement. Priest added the Planning Department to economic development director Patrick Doherty’s responsibilities to save money by not filling the planning position. Presumably, it was also intended to combine the interlinked responsibilities of the two departments. But that also raised several concerns. First, combining regulatory authority such as planning with an advocacy position, like recruiting businesses, under one person raises the issue about whether necessary but occasionally inconvenient regulations might be waived or downplayed. Many in the community recall that Federal Way became a city at least in part to check unbridled growth. Will transparency be lost in decision making? At the recent mayor-council retreat, Doherty complained that the city had lost a business because the zoning was too tight. The elected officials quickly stated their interest in wanting to change anything that might be a hindrance.

Secondly, with the addition of planning, will Doherty be able to devote enough time trying to attract business, let alone focus on such a significant need as downtown? It seems like a lot to expect of one person.

In his “state of the city” address, Priest seemed to endorse the performing arts and conference/civic center as a possible downtown economic development tool. It probably would be, and that would be a step. But it could also be several years away.

Federal Way is a gem waiting for just the right polish that will come with a rebirth to downtown. Many of our business and community leaders believe now is the time for leadership and the time for something to happen. Or at least “start” to happen. But until it does, we will continue to see many of “our” shoppers spend their money elsewhere, and we will continue to see our governmental services diminish.

The clock is running.