I watched the mayor of Federal Way’s 2021 State of the City speech and it was a decent presentation that checked all the boxes necessary to let people know the city is doing well in these challenging pandemic times.
The year 2020 was tough for anyone a managing a city. The simple message was the city survived, the sky did not fall and things will get better.
Our year-long challenge of dealing with a virus that created a fear-driven environment, shut down our world and limited access to common everyday activities made the challenge of running any city harder. Add personal expectations and fear to the mix from every resident — who believes they have the solution and thinks they are also your supervisor — and the job of being mayor gets crazier.
Pandemic or not, Federal Way keeps changing and changing in ways that need to be understood. The mayor’s presentation lets us know the city is doing fine from a management perspective. It is within budget targets, able to increase police staffing and add a new position to address diversity and equity. Light rail construction is on pace to arrive in 2024. Roads are being maintained, new stores are coming and some vacant retail space is being filled. DaVita is transitioning to its new building and is on track to be the city’s largest private sector employer.
State of the city addresses can be, but generally are not, about vision or change because it makes staff and residents alike nervous. People like certainty. Managing expectations is every politician’s forever challenge and is best done by keeping expectations low and within the grasp of the community. Expectations are a mixed bag of confusion when everyone has their own agenda. However, when expectations can be aligned, they can be a force multiplier that communities use to overcome complacency.
Knowing where Federal Way is in 2021 does not mean the city knows where it is going or needs to go. Like most cities, it operates on process and in the moment. At 100,000 people and still growing, our city is no longer small. Its underlying nature leans toward wanting to be left alone, pursuing growth with a small government, law and order focus, and managing immediate problems first. Nothing wrong with that. But that approach does not create a dynamic well-resourced community built on a clear forward-thinking vision of what we want to be.
The reason most cities evolve without a clear direction starts with budgeting. They want to keep at least the same level of resources funded within anticipated revenues. Zero-based budgeting is used to keep things as they are, and to do something different requires justification and new funding. It is a minimal risk management proposition to keep status quo thinking aligned with low expectations.
When Federal Way incorporated in 1990, with a population of 66,000 residents, the city’s budget process stabilized an unincorporated planned community. Even with consistent local control, we grew without a clearly focused vision. Being honest, Federal Way was built as a typical rapid growth 1960s-70s-80s suburban white flight low-cost entry-level bedroom community.
The thought was that all a city needs to build itself is housing, a few businesses, services, retail, roads, schools and churches. The rest would take care of itself. No real thought was given on how to build a valued and interconnected community.
Attracting businesses or adjusting to changing demographics, loss of anchor corporations or major retail, economic declines and poverty was not part of “what-if” discussions. Today’s Federal Way appears handicapped in its ability for attracting a highly educated residential base and next generation skilled employment opportunities.
By not establishing a strong cultural arts infrastructure, a multifaceted employment base, attracting a college or research institute to facilitate a clear sense of direction and purpose, our city’s ability to become a premier target destination for business, education, quality of life and residential value has been stunted. Federal Way throughout its existence has been trying to overcome the disadvantages that power brokers of Seattle dealt South King County through real-estate “red-lining” and directing industrial jobs and poverty south of downtown Seattle.
Even with one development hand tied behind the city’s back, Federal Way is stable, but it is trending toward poverty and our schools are uninspiring. Cities manage challenges that become theirs in any given moment, but to their own peril, they also risk losing vision and passion for becoming special.
Why hasn’t Federal Way made funding and valuing the arts, creativity, cultural partnerships, arts infrastructure and promoting education at all levels a properly funded annual priority? How can we purpose our growing diversity as an advantage rather than a perception we have to overcome? What are the building blocks and programs being proposed to make our city a preferred business and middle-class family destination? Do we have a forward-thinking vision?
Abundant vacant commercial office and retail space, empowering diversity, poverty, homelessness, affordable housing and quality employment opportunities are immediate challenges facing the city. As residents, we need to become leaders in understanding our community’s problems, overcome our complacency and challenge our elected officials to do more as well as better.
Our city will continue growing in population, diversity and housing costs. Diversity needs to be seen as a positive, and of course, housing costs are good for some, but not all. The desire for more affordable or subsidized housing is a one-note solution and provides temporary relief. But it does not help the city improve its status, and it does not position the city to become an entrepreneurial business center capable of utilizing our diversity and elevating the local economy.
As residents of this potentially great city, we needed to hear a better vision and story for our city than “we are managing to meet the basic needs that we, as mayor and city council, have set for ourselves in our quest to serve you, the public.”
There is room for improvement.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.