For Thurston County, 2012 might have begun with power-stopping snowstorms and ended with major legislative changes, but both were opportunities for improvements. Plenty of progress was made in other areas in between, too.
We had a very challenging but productive 2012,” said Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero at this month’s Chamber “State of the Community” forum.
Romero, who was part of a panel that included the mayors of Thurston County’s four major cities, summarized last year as one where advancements were made on issues ranging from water quality rules, environmental concerns (including the Critical Areas Ordinance), economic and job growth, and expansion of homeless facilities. She also specifically cited rapid growth in community volunteers, health resources and public transit.
“Also, we nearly tripled our county’s general reserve funds from $6 million to $16 million, making Thurston one of few counties in the state not facing a deficit next year,” she said. “There’s also a budget of $90 million for the general fund, and when you count everything else, it’s over $300 million, allowing us to maintain certain services without any kind of increase.”
However, within Thurston, each of the four cities will be dealing with both cross-county and individual challenges this year.
For Tumwater, leaps were made in safety services in 2012 when a voter-approved levy lid allowed an increase in firefighters and police, as well as an expansion of the fire station. Continuation of the Tumwater Brewery visioning project and improvements to Capitol Boulevard are the main projects on Mayor Pete Kmet’s plate for 2013.
“These are key infrastructure (hotspots) in terms of development, and we’ll continue to focus on these until some of the uncertainties (of other potential development areas) are played out,” he said. “We’re doing a lot to position ourselves for future development.”
There’s a hitch in those development plans, though, and it’s county-wide: gophers. With the ubiquitous Mazama pocket gopher heading toward an “Endangered” classification by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, those businesses and residents looking to build or expand on their properties are looking down the gun barrels of impending new zoning limitations.
“Tumwater is ground zero for that,” Kmet said. “We have a lot of undeveloped prairie habitat, and working through that is going to be a challenge for us, including for the area around the airport, in which the Port (of Olympia) has major investment.”
A specific concern for Lacey is the lag in retail sales, which dropped from $8.9 to $8.6 million last year, leaving the city 64th in the state in that category, well behind Olympia, Tumwater and Yelm.
There were happy news, though, in the housing sector: Lacey had a 31 percent jump in new single housing units to 286. The city also has the highest median income of anywhere in Thurston County, as well as the lowest crime rate in western Washington. And, altogether, Lacey has $70 million in infrastructure improvement projects on the books, all for the purpose of job creation and economic revitalization.
Now the issue is the workforce, said Mayor Virgil Clarkson.
Although the number of government employees has dropped 19 percent in the past decade, the city’s commercial and industrial construction sector has added more than 6,000 jobs in that same time, and 1,500 non-governmental employees in just the last year. To fill the void for new workers, Lacey is partnering with Joint Base Lewis-McChord to hire active-duty military members and their spouses, as well as veterans.
“Business participation and mentoring at local schools is critical,” Clarkson said. “And development of future job-ready employment is important to our overall fiscal health.”
In 2012, the City of Olympia made history in two ways: It hosted the epic “Paddle to Squaxin” canoe journey that involved more than 100 Pacific Northwest tribes, and it met in partnership with the Nisqually Tribe to gain final approval for water rights at a new well field.
Additional accomplishments were active efforts to make downtown safer and more aesthetic through efforts like bans on sales of high-alcohol beverages, the passage of a public safety levy, additional homeless resources, the installation of artwork and waterfront improvements.
“Actions taken last year will bear fruit this year and beyond,” said Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum.
For 2013, Buxbaum said the city is looking toward prioritizing its development prospects along the urban corridor through its community renewal areas initiative. One of the goals is “to build critical mass and reinforce our transportation system in a way that can make more of a connection through communities and points north and south,” he said. Toward this, the city recently received HUD approval for a $1.9 million revolving loan fund.
Also on tap for 2013 is job creation and infrastructure. However, Buxbaum said, fewer available state and federal government funds has left many cities, including Olympia, to fend for themselves.
“I’m concerned with the disinvestment by state and federal government with issues like infrastructure, transport, wastewater and things that local governments have relied on (them for) forever,” he said. “That will continue to have a heavy impact on us, so we’ll have to think creatively about long term solutions, and it will necessitate the need to work together through our own local actions.”
There’s a lot of good economic news for Yelm, said Mayor Ron Harding.
For one, there’s the fact that, although many housing developments have foreclosed within the last few years and many potential development sites sit vacant without investment, Yelm has only one 26-acre lot empty.
Not only that, but in 2011 the city processed 25 new housing start programs. In the past year? There have already been 114. And that all goes to building the economy, and local confidence, and local businesses, he said.
“Out of these challenges, we’ve become a lot more efficient, and found ways to provide the same, normal services for less money and ways to reduce fees and give back to community,” he said.
Indeed, the efficiency seems to be working. At the end of 2012, instead of raising the typical 1 percent property tax, the city was actually able to lower it by that amount. As for the cantankerous water rate issue, which had some businesses’ bills jacked up more than 200 percent, the city was able to secure enough water rights for three decades. And Yelm purchased the library building.
This year, Harding said, the focus is on infrastructure, including a comprehensive master plan for a city park that includes a much-needed community center.
“A lot of our challenges parallel (other city’s) challenges, such as escalating costs at a much quicker rate than captured revenue, so there’s always that balance,” he said. “And a lot of the (issues) work their way down to local businesses and companies, but if (they) continue to engage us, they can help us find that balance.”
Another unique issue noted by Romero is Thurston County’s growing senior population.
“A lot of businesses in Thurston County are facing a lot of retirements; there’s a lot of talent getting ready to enjoy life, and so we have to prepare for succession planning,” she said.
Other topics on her agenda for 2013 are policies to create healthier workplaces, agri-tourism, and environmental stewardship while attracting development.
“We have to figure out a creative way to build in urban growth areas while setting aside habitat in rural areas,” Romero said.
But make no mistake: “Thurston County is open for business,” she added.