Federal Way’s canary moment

City is in survival mode with various challenges, including homelessness, multifamily housing density and more.

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston

The city of Federal Way may be having its canary in the coal mine moment. The challenges this city has on its plate – homelessness, low-income housing, residential transiency, multifamily housing density, poverty expansion, crime, vacant office space, airplane noise, limited retail options, company town syndrome, lack of development, a population unprepared for next-generation jobs, and provincialism combined with low-vision leadership choices, means this city is in survival mode.

All cities have challenges but some of Federal Way’s lackluster successes are the result of being a “planned” community. They look good on paper and in a marketing leaflet but in reality, this planned city was an extension of Weyerhaeuser’s corporate world.

They built a company town for their corporate needs and employees. They also invited anyone who wanted to escape the urban ills of Tacoma or Seattle to come live here for a suburban lifestyle, less government, low taxes and be left alone in the mosh pit of unincorporated King County.

Incorporation in 1990 should have produced a stable and economically diverse middle class employment base. It didn’t, but the city has increased in population, ethnic and cultural diversity, and become less affluent. High-quality opportunities and growth stayed north in Seattle and with Eastside cities.

Company towns come with an odd aura around them defined by singularity combined with a sense of superiority that says to potential suitors seeking opportunity and synergy — stay away. As long as Federal Way had its anchor corporate proprietor, this town had real value. The homes they built here was good business and provided easy access for their employees to office jobs at their main and satellite campuses and a bedroom community for everyone else.

With Weyerhaeuser having slinked away to an anonymous building in Seattle, leaving its once-planned community in tatters, what is our current leadership able to do to revive the canary?

This is the beginning of City Council election season and so far, the narrative is homelessness, poverty, low-income housing and crime. Lots of hand wringing opportunities that come with no easy solutions, but they will provide the perfect mix of topics to talk about in a politically meaningless way.

Until we understand why Federal Way is not being considered or chosen as a preferred start-up or relocation community, we will not be able to discuss or work on the resources necessary to compete consistently as an economic development attractor. There are opportunities out there but they aren’t coming here.

This knowledge is essential for realigning the city’s strategies for filling the current volume of vacant office space, which is 30 percent. That number has been growing annually as jobs continue going elsewhere.

We need to have a city that is capable of being a business center and catalyst for regional growth. Filling empty office space with companies and enterprises bringing new college educated middle-class jobs and incomes to this city should be priority one for our elected elites. New jobs will come with families that can rebalance the economic stresses that are currently present in our community and schools.

Supporting every aspect of the school system and establishing that all students are achieving, their needs are being met and opportunities are present post-graduation, solidifies a reason to choose Federal Way. The school district’s success is our future.

Cut the best deal possible with Woodbridge Corporate Park/IRG on their development plans using preservation of open space and campus aesthetics as targeted desires, while holding them to the highest standards. IRG prefers a buy, build and hold development strategy and that means they have a vested interest in the future success of Federal Way.

That may be hard for some residents to believe considering the miscommunication and lack of trust generated to date. But, they are the owners and are entitled to develop the property to the fullest extent within the zoning limits allowed. If they are successful, the city and school district will gain substantially in tax base.

Homelessness may unfortunately be a part of the landscape until we as a nation decide to address the elephants, or the root causes in the room. Causes such as poverty, economic insecurity, student loan debt and many more persist because politicians get elected and corporations make money on these issues.

A smart place to start fighting for change is assuring that everyone has health insurance and recognizing that mental health and drug addiction are best addressed as public health issues. Tying insurance to employment means the most vulnerable in society are set up for failure.

Not all solutions are in Federal Way’s wheelhouse but attracting next-generation jobs, improving education results, and supporting positive development options are solutions that the city and community should be striving to achieve. Poverty and low-income housing issues will be with us until incomes rise and higher-quality employment opportunities increase.

Federal Way’s situation is healthy enough to keep the canary on life support, but if the city’s leadership gets distracted by constant chirping on social issues, the ability to revive the canary will be lost.

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

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