What niche is Federal Way trying to fill in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area?
Using Google search, I asked: “What is Federal Way known for?” Google’s top answer was Wild Waves Water and Theme Park. The next answer was the King County Aquatic Center.
Google in its strange wisdom also provided a “people also ask” list. That list of questions asked if Federal Way is a ghetto, dangerous, a good place to live, and a suburb. Those four questions are based on the search algorithm Google uses to help people refine their queries. Simply stated, these are frequently asked questions.
Our city is fortunate to have the theme park and aquatics center. But are they our best attributes? Like all residents living in Federal Way, we know that it is a decent place to live. If you were a company or family looking at our city as a relocation opportunity, you might not consider Federal Way as your best option based on that query result without doing a lot more research.
For comparative purposes, I did the same search for Bellevue, and this was the top response: “Bellevue is the high-tech and retail center of the Eastside, with more than 150,000 jobs and a downtown skyline of gleaming high-rises. With beautiful parks, top schools and a vibrant economy, Bellevue is routinely ranked among the best mid-sized cities in the country.”
Google also provided a commonly asked four question list. They were: “What is Bellevue Hospital known for? Is Bellevue rich? Is Bellevue more expensive than Seattle? Is Bellevue a good place to live?” A very different set of questions.
Your response might be to say that it is not a fair comparison. You would be right in 2021, but in 1960, Bellevue as an incorporated city had a population of 12,000 and Federal Way’s population was 14,000 as an unincorporated planning district of King County. Federal Way has improved greatly since incorporation in 1990, but our growth appears to have been without dynamic results.
A friend of mine who has lived in and near Federal Way for 50-plus years described the 1960-1970s growth period and the people who tended to gravitate here as unsophisticated, a bit redneck, seeking a bargain home, plot of land, new opportunity, or view. The city’s population is currently about 100,000, but the characteristics my friend shared may not have substantially changed. Overcoming the perception of being unsophisticated, crime sketchy, and a low-cost entry point community may be this city’s biggest challenge.
It is hard to establish yourself as a competitive force when you are still overcoming 30-plus years of hands-off planning and growth combined with 30 years of incorporated efforts. Our city is able to do community basics well, but positioning ourselves to be a competitive first choice community has not happened. Without a strong business core, clear focus on education achievement, and commitment on creativity resources, entrepreneurship, next generation trades, services, commerce and understanding what builds value, Federal Way will struggle to elevate its standing in search engines.
It’s hard to build community and economic value when the majority of our city’s workforce travels elsewhere for employment. If Federal Way and Tacoma had partnered politically 30 or 40 years ago and convinced the Legislature to improve State Highway 18 to an interstate highway standard capable of supporting commercial traffic from I-90 to the I-5 corridor, Federal Way’s economic position would be significantly better today.
Our city is entering its 2021 election season. The mayor and four city council positions are on the ballot. The issues we are hearing about most are the same old standards of affordable housing, homelessness, diversity and land policy. New to the table are police reform and post-COVID-19 recovery.
The candidates always share a few platitudes about elevating Federal Way’s standing as a business destination and trying to establish a center for higher education here, but nothing much ever happens. Businesses occupy vacant office and retail spaces, but they come and go with no staying power or capability to reshape Federal Way’s future.
Understanding the future impact light rail will have is a must. Most of us already know that land planning and actual use around the transit center is not pedestrian friendly, and our city core is not an enjoyable walking experience. Nor are we a bike-friendly city. Cities without quality pedestrian and people-scape opportunities struggle to find cultural and community synergy.
Coming out of our COVID-19 hibernation and malaise is a challenge only if people do not return to supporting local businesses, retail options and restaurants still open when all the public health restrictions are lifted. Discussions about what it takes to build value at all levels of our community rarely appear to be on the table or understood by our elected leaders.
As residents of Federal Way, we already know that it is OK to be boring, unsophisticated, and a more affordable housing option than other cities. We may revel to some extent in our growing diversity and desire to improve, but our idiosyncratic early salt-of-the-earth residents with their generational roots don’t want to be challenged by change. They don’t see the benefits of attracting businesses and corporations, improving schools, diversity, investing in arts and culture, or light rail. They fear change.
Federal Way is trapped in its own culture war. We may not aspire to achieve the success of a city like Bellevue, but we must elect leaders that have a desire for halting our city’s slow decent into poverty, irrelevance and being a city with no coherent vision.
The challenge we must accept is reshaping Federal Way into a city valuing education achievement, arts and culture, environmental sustainability, equity, as well as being a launching city for entrepreneurial success combined with a high quality of life for all residents. Or we can continue on the current path and be a decent but forgettable city with a great theme park.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.