As Seattle and the Eastside’s burgeoning growth flows southbound, Auburn is celebrating a pivotal time in its history and staking its claim as a vibrant city where residents can enjoy a strong sense of community and businesses can start, stay, and grow.
“There’s this golden opportunity for a really good lifestyle here at a fair price. And there’s good jobs. … I think we’re seeing that tier-twos like us, Renton, and some other areas around (the metro area) are really being a good support network to the growth of (the area). I think they are recognizing that, that we’re a piece of the infrastructure that helps (the area) stay strong,” said Doug Lein, economic development manager for the City of Auburn.
Incorporated in 1891, Auburn began as a small farming community that greatly benefited from the development of the rail line. Over the years, it transformed into a city of business and industry, becoming home to a major Boeing Commercial Airplanes site, Orion Industries’ manufacturing facility, Emerald Downs racetrack, and The Outlet Collection mall, to name a few.
In addition, residents looking to live in more affordable outlying areas near transit began taking a closer look at cities like Auburn. New buildings emerged in and around the authentic downtown, like the 126-unit Trek Apartments and a multifamily and senior housing development called The Reserve.
Despite the area’s growth, the city continued to lack one critical element: cohesiveness.
“You have that struggle of old downtown that needs to find its new way. You’ve got residents that aren’t, by birth, connected to a community. And another part of your city is built out with people that come from everywhere. So our challenge was, where do we take this diverse population, thinking, and culture, and how do you build some cohesiveness out of that?” Lein said. “Now, the one good thing we had going for us in the past, and now, is the industrial base that we have here in aerospace and Boeing. … So, we were lucky to have that really solid, and still do, blue-collar manufacturing community here that really, really helps.”
Looking to develop that cohesiveness and proactively shape its future, the city began developing a 10-year economic development plan. Serving as the framework for its economic development activities and investments, the economic development plan was adopted by the city council in 2016.
“Auburn can and should harness Seattle’s success to shape its own economic development future as a vibrant, connected city with a strong and diverse employment base. It should also build opportunity from within by encouraging companies to start, stay, and grow in the city. All of this work must be accomplished without losing sight of its purpose: to benefit the citizens of Auburn and provide employment opportunities for the children that grow up there,” the plan states.
Drawing on the input of more than 200 stakeholders and results of various analyses, the strategy is structured around four key areas:
Delivery: Through initiatives like business recruitment and a formal business visitation program, the city is working to actively identify and advance economic development opportunities.
Product: The city is proactively fostering business growth and ensuring a resilient employment base by, for instance, ensuring a supply of deal-ready sites to accommodate new business investments, and improving the land use and building permit process and performance.
Place: By continuing to invest in downtown revitalization; strengthening its regional tourism connections; and ensuring ease of travel to, from, and within the community, for instance, Auburn is taking steps to further define its character.
Messaging: Through a coordinated marketing and branding campaign, Auburn is working to build a stronger brand, a greater sense of community, and a more positive perception.
“We try to follow every day by that plan so we methodically know where we’re going and what initiatives that we as staff and what help we get out of the partners and the public to move that plan or those strategies forward,” Lein said.
As part of the strategic plan, the city also launched a business incubator to capitalize on the Seattle metro area’s reputation as an entrepreneurship and innovation hub. In 2017, it leased 1,556 square feet of commercial space within Auburn Station to house the incubator. The conveniently located rail station and transit center has the capacity to house a minimum of 10 businesses.
The mission, according to the plan: “To increase the successful development of emerging businesses in the community’s target industry sectors. These new businesses will in turn create new jobs, increase tax generation, and create wealth, which ultimately causes a chain reaction of community benefits through the multiplier effect.”
Auburn’s roots in the region run long and deep, but its journey is far from over. In many ways, it’s just beginning.
“We fit into this sweet spot. Take advantage of our freight corridor. Take advantage of our mass transit for reliable movement of large amounts of people, and the fact that we’re on that western border of the Cascades, where somebody can get on their mountain bike and be into the green field in five minutes from out their back door, or they can go 10 minutes to the train and be at King Street Station or downtown Tacoma in 20 minutes,” Lein said.