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.
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.