Top 10 news stories of 2009
December 29, 2009
Growth slowed and the economy cooled throughout 2009. The watershed moments in Issaquah hinged on expansion and recession. Leaders broke ground for a major new employer, even while other businesses left town for good.
Issaquah began the first decade of a new century as a fast-growing city, a title the city held for years. As 2009 reached a close, however, officials pared the size of government to face the new economic reality.
From January floods to record July heat and brutal December cold, 2009 was jam-packed, but the year was never dull.
Living ‘green’ continues in Issaquah
A new community garden sprouted, threatened salmon received another chance and city officials worked to make dining out more eco-friendly.
Volunteers harvested more than 300 pounds of organic peppers, squash and tomatoes for the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank. The effort brought together a community group, Sustainable Issaquah, and nonprofit AtWork! to feed the hungry.
Salmon benefited from good works, too. Throughout fall, Issaquah Salmon Hatchery workers and volunteers collected almost 35,000 eggs to restore vulnerable kokanee salmon.
King County Council members and local environmentalists also prodded the federal government to list Lake Sammamish kokanee as endangered, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended 2009 without a decision about the salmon’s status.
Officials further burnished the city’s green credentials when the City Council banned polystyrene food containers, like Styrofoam takeout boxes.
Issaquah will become the first Eastside city to require businesses to switch from eco-unfriendly polystyrene to compostable or recyclable — and pricier — containers and utensils. The council voted Nov. 16 to follow bans in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
What’s next: A voluntary adoption period will begin Jan. 1, and the ban will become mandatory Oct. 1.
Highlands step forward, one step back
Issaquah Highlands residents recorded milestones and headaches throughout the year.
Oct. 12 marked a triumph. Gov. Chris Gregoire and other dignitaries broke ground for a Swedish Medical Center campus in the community. The hospital will create more than 1,000 jobs, from architects to construction workers to neurologists. Phase 1 opens in mid-2011, and the rest of the hospital comes online the next year.
The community reached another achievement Dec. 7, when officials broke ground for a YWCA affordable-housing complex.
Other highlights: Developer Port Blakely Communities announced a deal to open a Regal movie theater, and the local Habitat for Humanity branch broke ground on houses.
But residents also grumbled about the pace of commercial development in the mostly residential community. A plan to allow a highlands gas station sputtered in late December, and deals to bring a grocery store to the community faltered.
What’s next: Crews will continue work on the hospital and YWCA, while Port Blakely will revisit the gas station issue.
Slow down! You’re on camera.
Police installed a camera system along Second Avenue Southeast to catch speeders — even if no officers are around to ticket violators.
Officers activated a camera system in March, and sent speeders warnings until mid-April, when lead-footed drivers received $124 fines in the mail. The violation is a noncriminal infraction, like a parking ticket.
Crews installed the cameras — and notification signs — in a busy school zone as a speed deterrent. The stretch includes Clark Elementary, Tiger Mountain Community High and Issaquah middle and high schools.
Within a month or so after police activated the cameras, officers said traffic slowed through the pedestrian-packed corridor where the speed limit is 20 mph.
How the system works: Sensors embedded in the roadway alert cameras to speeding vehicles. Then, a camera records video of the violation and another snaps a photo of the rear license plate.
What’s next: Issaquah Municipal Court employees will develop procedures for speed camera violations.
Salmon Days hits the big 4-0
Salmon Days opened Oct. 3 with a milestone. The festival marked, as banners proclaimed, “40 years of great returns.” Days before the festival opened, Salmon Days was named the best festival in 2008 — in the world.
Since locals established the festival in 1970, Salmon Days has transformed from small-town fair to regional festival — and a crucial draw for out-of-towners and tourism dollars. Organizers mustered more than 500 volunteers and corporate backers by the dozens to put on the salmon-centric event.
During the weekend-long 2009 festival, more than 180,000 people trekked downtown. Robin Kelley, festivals director at the Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce and Salmon Days organizer, said festival attendance “comes down to the weather one way or the other.”
Organizers hit another jackpot: The festival unfolded in mild weather, beneath blue skies.
What’s next: The fishy festival returns for a 41st year in early fall 2010.
Businesses take punch from the economy
The recession pinched Issaquah in visible ways: vacant storefronts and undeveloped lots.
The bad economy claimed Joe’s, the venerable sporting goods retailer. Shoppers flocked to the mid-April going-out-of-business sale and snapped up outdoor gear at deep discounts. The local store, barely open 10 years, went under when the Oregon-based chain entered bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, new developments planned for a high-traffic Front Street North sputtered when the economy faltered. A planned overhaul at the old ARCO gas station, 800 Front St. N., slowed to a standstill.
The city issued a building permit for a 10,500-square-foot commercial building at a prime location in February. New shops and restaurants would rise where Skippers restaurant once stood. But the site at 670 Front St. N. remains undeveloped. The developer has time to break ground because building permits remain active for three years.
What’s next: Retailers considering vacant storefronts could take root in Issaquah.
City takes financial hit as well
Fewer employees will head to work at City Hall and other city facilities as 2009 wraps. After months of penny pinching, officials took a dramatic cost-saving step in early September, when Mayor Ava Frisinger announced layoffs for 10 city employees.
The city saved about $2 million through layoffs, a hiring freeze and a severance program. Layoffs, Frisinger said, were “not a choice we wanted to make.”
When key money sources — building permit fees and sales tax revenue — shrunk, the economy forced city officials to make difficult choices.
The cuts hit every city department. Officials delayed buying supplies and equipment, and suspended nonessential staff training. After a midyear, $1.6-million spending cut was not enough, officials offered municipal staffers a severance package, and several longtime employees accepted.
The cuts influenced the mayor and City Council as they crafted a 2010 budget smaller than the 2009 plan.
What’s next: Officials said more midyear cuts and layoffs could occur in 2010 if the economy fails to rebound.
Dogs no longer welcome in park
Pet owners howled in late July when the city banned dogs from Timberlake Park, a 24-acre spot popular with pet owners.
Officials cited safety concerns as reason for the ban, as city officials received reports of people being knocked down by dogs, dogs fighting with other dogs and dogs darting from trails onto private property. Earlier rules allowed leashed dogs in the park.
Park Board members said city pet ordinances should be revised with stronger language about citations and enforcement.
Mayor Ava Frisinger received a torrent of comments both opposing and supporting the ban. City Parks & Recreation Department officials held an open house at Tibbetts Creek Manor in September to discuss the ban; about 70 people attended. Park Board members then reviewed a thick stack of residents’ comments from the meeting.
What’s next: The mayor and City Council members will decide whether the ban should be modified or remain in effect.
City gets its name in lights
Issaquah hit the big time in ‘09.
The city is larger than ever, with 26,890 residents. Nearly 16,000 people moved to Issaquah during the decade, and the city ranked as the fifth-fastest growing in the state.
Village Theatre alumnus Brian Yorkey took home a Tony Award in June for Best Original Score for writing the lyrics for the musical “Next to Normal.”
The production began as a staged reading at Village Theatre in March 2002, but the creative team went on to develop the play further as a Village Originals workshop in June 2005. From there, the musical premiered off Broadway and then reached the Great White Way.
Village Theatre Original smash hit “Million Dollar Quartet” also found success, as it will be playing on Broadway in the spring. After opening in Issaquah in 2007, the production moved to Chicago, where it is now playing.
Another local, Liberty High School graduate and Major League Baseball pitcher Tim Lincecum won a second-straight National League Cy Young Award. The San Francisco Giants right-hander became the first to win consecutive Cy Young Awards since Randy Johnson won four straight with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1999 to 2002.
Teacher cuts made to bridge budget gap
With the state budget gap of more than $5 billion announced this time last year, Issaquah School District officials and teachers braced for major cuts in funding.
For the first time in more than a decade, teachers were laid off as the state’s public school system was dealt a $1.5 billion blow to its budget. Issaquah’s budget gap measured $7.3 million by the time all was said and done. As a result, district officials closed the gap by laying off maintenance and administrative workers (saving $2.2 million), increasing class sizes by one child in kindergarten through 12th grade (saving another $2.2 million) and dipping into reserve funds. As a preventative measure, district officials temporarily laid off 158 of the district’s 1,097 teachers. However, after federal stimulus funding came through, they were able to rehire many of them.
What’s next: As 2010 budget talks begin in the Legislature, district officials are preparing for another round of cuts. However, they’re also ramping up efforts for a Feb. 9 election regarding three replacement levies: maintenance and operations; transportation; and capital repairs, which includes technology and critical repairs components. In sum, the levies would bring in just over $214 million through 2014.
It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s never just right
Issaquah, and the region, was plagued by extreme weather conditions in 2009.
Issaquah was hit hard by severe weather that started with snow and ice in December 2008 and early January, which made the return to school and work after the holidays difficult for most residents. Vehicle accidents and tow trucks were everywhere.
But the icy roads soon turned to swimming pools as the waters of Issaquah Creek flooded major thoroughfares and flowed into parking lots, businesses and homes.
After the waters receded, Issaquah was left with $153,980 in damage to public property. Businesses in the Gilman Square shops, like Lombardi’s restaurant, were hit hardest. Business owners there discovered flood waters had risen to nearly 3 feet and damaged countless amounts of inventory. The estimated damage there was roughly $600,000, while Issaquah homeowners reported about $500,000 in damage.
After a calm and uneventful spring, the end of July and beginning of August sent Issaquah residents scurrying to local stores to buy out entire stocks of air conditioning units, fans, wading pools and water. Temperatures on the mercury rose to at least 103 degrees as recorded by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where official records are kept.
What’s next: In light of the extreme heat and cold, city officials and residents continue to modify their emergency plans.