A tale of two cities: In Kent, public projects spurred economic development

Kent Station.
Kent Station

Part one of two

Story and photos by Doug Petrowski

As Mountlake Terrace voters consider Proposition 1, the $25 million municipal bond issue that, if approved, would finance construction of a new civic center for the city, they are hearing messages from both proponents and opponents concerning the merits of the measure. Both sides talk about cost of the civic center project and its impact on local property taxes. Both sides talk about what they view are necessities for the city.

Both sides are also pushing their views on whether a new civic center would ignite private economic development in a downtown that has been stagnant for decades.

But will a voter-approved $25 million public project actually result in a new economic boom time for Mountlake Terrace? Will a new city hall facility at 232nd Street Southwest and 58th Avenue West spur private investment in the Town Center district along 236th Street Southwest and 56th Avenue West?

During Mountlake Terrace City Council discussions about whether the measure should be brought before voters this year, Councilmember Bryan Wahl asked if there were examples of other cities in the region that made a big public investment in tax money and capital building projects that resulted in more private development also. “What kind of economic impact has that had in other communities that we can potential expect here in Mountlake Terrace,” Wahl asked on Jan. 3.

City Manager John Caulfield answered with the examples of a few cities, most notably Kent and Burien.

“I don’t know what the numbers are, but (an) example would be Kent,” Caulfield said. “A lot of things have happened in Kent, where Kent is now viewed as the leader in south King County, where as maybe ten years ago that wasn’t the case.”

So what happened in Kent? City officials will proudly tell you; “we hit a home run,” said Kent Chief Administrative Officer John Hodgson.

The story of how Kent went from an industrial and farming community of 40,000 in population some 20 years ago to a bustling suburban city of 120,000 involves vision, money, timing and luck.

The city spent $16 million in the late 1990s to purchase and clean up 20 acres in what would later become Kent Station, a retail/theater complex next to a newly-built Sound Transit commuter-rail station. In 1997, the county opened the King County Regional Justice Center, a facility that would staff 300 employees in the criminal justice system.

A few years later, the city bought more land close by on which to build a new city hall. The city’s library and community center are also within walking distance of this new downtown plan for Kent.

City officials admit they purposefully tied the siting of new public projects around a footprint for private money to come and develop in.”Placement was critical,” Hodgson explained. With the public facilities forming an outer ring around land that the city wanted to see developed, city officials felt confident private investment would occur.

“All of those (public projects) do a number of things to provide day and evening visitors to our downtown core shopping center,” Hodgson said. “We were very involved with who would come develop. We got it right. We were very thoughtful with what we did.”

Kent Station, once the site of a Borden Chemical resin plant, now is home to more than 50 stores and restaurants, a movie theater, a couple medical offices and classrooms for Central Washington University and Green River Community College. The “urban village” hopes to add apartments and condominiums in the near future.

ShoWare Center
ShoWare Center

In January 2009, the mother lode of public facilities for potential economic impact opened. The ShoWare Center, a 6,500-seat multipurpose sports arena, sits just to the northwest of Kent Station and brings thousands of people to the area with more than 100 scheduled events per year. While Kent Station had become a destination for residents of the city to shop, dine and be entertained, the addition of ShoWare Center would now bring in visitors from throughout the region.

The success of Kent did come with a big price tag; the public facilities built in the city cost tens of millions of dollars. ShoWare Center, owned by the City of Kent, cost $84.5 million to build, and lost $1 million in its first three years of operation. The regional justice center cost $166 million to build in 1990s dollars. The Sound Transit commuter rail station, Kent City Hall, improvements to infrastructure and streets in the area, all cost millions more.

Kent city officials state that the public investments in their city were well worth it. “We’re excited about the synergy that’s happening with our economic development. We’re busier than ever,” Hodgson beamed.

The city has grown to become the third biggest in King County, soon to perhaps challenge Bellevue for that second spot. Kent is now targeting residential growth through encouraging more development and continuing annexation, Hodgson said.

With all the success the city has had with economic growth, and minds set on expanding the city further, there’s lots of enthusiasm at Kent City Hall. But a few miles away, in Burien, the mood is not as bright. On Thursday we will look at the efforts of Burien city officials to inject some economic life into that community — efforts that haven’t paid off as well.

  1. I commend you for attempting what is not an easy comparison, given how much larger Kent was even before its annexations tripled its population and tax base. It is important to note two critical differences between here and there.

    MLT actually lost population from 2000-2010, while Kent was exploding with population and development. They now have both a much expanded population and geography while we remain less than 4 square miles like we have for over 30 years. Surrounded on all sides, we have no annexation opportunities.

    The second key difference is the sheer dollar volume of pulic development from sources outside the city, including the County and Sound Transit. Other than the failed Showare Center, which few leaders there still mention, those dollars dwarfed the City’s expenditure. So did the money spent by private developers serving both an expanded population base and the surrounding office-industrial base.

    That facet of Kent’s development dynamic, the one which has sustained the city and the Valley named after Kent for well over 30 years isn’t even mentioned in your story. Our streetscape dreamers who envision a lively urban village here to compare with Kent should visit Kent and ask themselves if what Kent has done is really a practical expectation for MLT.

    Other than the moods of the respective city leadership, the differences between MLT and Kent have long been and still are far greater than the similarities.

  2. Doug:

    A well-researched and informative article – this is real community reporting and helps me better understand the issues for the upcoming election.

    From your descripton of Kent, I am reminded of our neighbor to the East – Bothell. Like Kent, Bothell has a large population, growing larger through annexation. Like Kent, Bothell has an established Town Center, but wants to do more. Like Kent, Bothell has a sizable economy and substantial commercial tax base. I could go on, but I won’t, because it serves no purpose to engage in a Bothell vs. Kent debate (hair-splitters can fact check me on Wikipedia, if they so choose). My point is not that Kent is like Bothell or vice-versa, but rather that neither of those two cities is like our city of Mountlake Terrace.

    This article has done a great job in showing how very different Kent is compared to Mountlake Terrace. It seems to me that for Mr. Caulfield to point to Kent as an example that may be comparable to what we could expect here in Mountlake Terrace is misleading, at best. I am puzzled as to why he has done so.

    Once again, thanks for the excellent reporting.

  3. I know the south-end well. I grew up in Burien and still have friends and relatives there. Our business has for many years had customers in Kent with whom we do business. I read your story about Kent’s recent development and growth, its population, geography and tax base. What I read makes it obvious we’re not the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.