Economic development has been at the forefront of every Puget Sound city’s wish list. The competition among jurisdictions remains intense.
In Federal Way, it was a major point of debate in the last mayoral race as Jim Ferrell challenged whether then-Mayor Skip Priest had done enough to attract or keep business.
Last fall, Ferrell hired a “game changer” as our new Economic Development director. So far, it is a mixed record as Weyerhaeuser announced it’s leaving and DeVry University says it is closing at the end of the year.
Elsewhere, Kent had a win when it was able to attract an Amazon fulfillment center and its 500 jobs, Issaquah will have a new Metropolitan Market, (remember when ours left a few years ago?) and Auburn got Brooks Brothers, but lost the Federal Aviation Administration, which is moving its 1,600 employees from Renton to Des Moines. Were we competitive for any of these? At the mayor-council retreat in January, it was stated that a major announcement would be made by the end of April. But so far no announcement and not much has changed in Federal Way.
Ferrell can point to the approval of the Performing Arts and Events Center along with a new downtown park. But those are a long way from showing any return on investment. And they are tax supported, not private sector. Also, the arts center still needs more help in federal tax credits, which may not be known for several weeks.
Ferrell tried to replicate his successful neighborhood connection program with a similar business approach. It didn’t work as well and caused some friction within the business community. The lack of progress has caused many to raise questions about the scope and direction of his economic development initiatives.
But we may be starting to see a glimmer on the horizon.
While cautious in their optimism, the mayor and his staff seem to be confident they’ll have a positive outcome in the tax credit program to help finance the arts center. And recently, Ferrell corrected his misstep as he moved aggressively to partner with the Chamber, establishing regular meetings with business leaders, along with investing in programs to raise the city profile regionally.
The renewed cooperation should pay future dividends. And while the state is the primary driver in the Weyerhaeuser discussions, the city is participating in regular meetings to lend support and says several businesses have shown interest.
But over the last few months, one of the more interesting rumors has been the possibility of discussions with a major university. Could former Husky Ferrell really be talking with the Cougars? While no one locally will confirm the rumor, it has been a point of interest in college circles for many weeks.
However, Federal Way’s viability is in question. For several months Bellevue and Washington State University pursued discussions on establishing a partnership in Bellevue and they announced in late May that a formal Memorandum of Understanding was very close to being signed. The two institutions have already outlined how a relationship might look.
Washington State University has established a footprint in Everett and has a presence in Puyallup. With former King County Executive Ron Sims on their board of regents, expansion into King County seems a logical move.
With the growth and wealth on the Eastside, college administrators see Bellevue as the most logical location for Washington State University to establish a competitive playing field with the main branch of the University of Washington and its Bothell branch. Issaquah might be a possible backup.
But there is little doubt that the city and Washington State University have had discussions about possible expansion. However, there are questions. With lower incomes in south King County, three other colleges within 20 minutes of Federal Way and the University of Washington already in Tacoma, could Federal Way demonstrate unmet student capacity needs?
A needs assessment could help identify whether or not such a need exists. Given the budget debates, it seems unlikely the state would be willing to financially support two new locations in Bellevue and Federal Way. Some question if Federal Way is a serious contender, a backup plan if Bellevue falls through, or a long-range option.
But the exploration is a positive move. The next step would be establishing some preliminary agreements to test the school’s level of interest. Then watch to see if the city and university also sign a Memorandum of Understanding.
If so, does the city pay for it alone and would it encompass more than just an agreement to do the needs assessment? The next few months should give us a clearer picture of both Ferrell’s economic plans and Washington State University’s level of seriousness. It could be an interesting summer.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: email@example.com.