Effort to boost local economy focuses on competitiveness

April 3, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah faces ‘much more aggressive’ cities in hunt for businesses

In another step to attract businesses to Issaquah and encourage existing entrepreneurs to remain in the city, leaders promised a more robust economic development effort March 27 in a series of other changes to City Hall.

In recent months, officials unveiled a plan to streamline the permitting process for businesses, create a municipal Economic Vitality Commission and add employees dedicated to economic development.

The effort is meant to turn Issaquah into a more desirable place to do business than other Eastside cities. The competition among cities for businesses is fierce, especially since the recession caused construction to lag.

“Communities are much more aggressive and much more competitive for the amount of economic development that exists out there,” City Administrator Bob Harrison said in a presentation to the City Council.

The staffer assigned to lead the economic development effort is Keith Niven, the longtime program manager for Major Development Review Team, the entity responsible for planning in the Issaquah Highlands and Talus.

Plans call for Niven and a pair of economic development managers to undertake the effort. Harrison said the city expected to offer the economic development post to a candidate in the days ahead. The next economic development manager is expected to join the staff by October.

The proposal requires approval and funding from the council to proceed. The council is expected to approve the changes next month through a series of adjustments to the 2012 municipal budget.

The council is receptive to the initiative. Months before the latest push, council members identified economic development as a top priority for 2012.

“In the past, the community could rest on its laurels. People wanted to come here. They viewed it as a great place to reside and do business,” Harrison said. “In the future — we’ve already seen some experience of businesses that were going to locate here and they ended up getting contacted by other communities, and they poached those businesses that were going to locate in Issaquah.”

Lackluster economy poses a challenge

The initial test for Niven is the proposed Regency Centers retail complex in the Issaquah Highlands — a cinema, shops, restaurants and parking areas on 14 acres.

Elsewhere in Issaquah, established retail centers show signs of a lackluster economy.

“You can basically go to any of our retail and commercial centers today and see a ‘for lease’ sign,” Niven said. “I think we generally think that our economy is fairly robust, that we did pretty well in the recession, that maybe we don’t have much to worry about. The reality is, there is a lot of vacant space in town.”

(The city and Issaquah Chamber of Commerce do not record vacancy data.)

The economic development effort is also expected to fit into the long-term plan to remake the 915-acre business district, Central Issaquah.

“What we do we believe is going to happen in the future is redevelopment,” Harrison said not long after the council received a briefing on the Central Issaquah Plan.

Niven suggested business incubators — programs designed to nurture startup ventures — as a possible project. Tourism is another early focus as officials attempt to attract dollars to Issaquah businesses.

“There is a lot of money to be made in tourism,” Niven said. But, he added later, “We need to figure out what Issaquah’s place is in Eastside tourism.”

Meanwhile, Harrison and Mayor Ava Frisinger continue to interview applicants to the Economic Vitality Commission. The board could create a marketing plan to attract businesses, produce annual report cards on economic development strategies and more.

Councilman Joshua Schaer cautioned Niven to seek out “the right kind of businesses” for the city.

“We as a city could be like the person who’s so desperate for attention that they’ll date anybody, and as we know, that can lead to not only bad relationships, but perhaps an impact on one’s soul,” Schaer said.

Niven, in response, offered some ideas about the long-term goal.

“Economic development is not just about more,” he said. “Economic growth and economic development are not the same thing. I’m not here saying I’m the Economic Growth Department. We are here to really develop the livability of this community.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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