The Issaquah Chamber of Commerce’s June 8 luncheon represented a first for the city of Issaquah.
As Chamber Board President David Bleiweiss noted before kicking off proceedings, the event saw the city’s three mayoral candidates — Deputy City Council President Mary Lou Pauly, Councilmember Paul Winterstein and business owner Claude Blumenzweig — go head-to-head in a debate for the first time since 2017 campaigns were announced.
But unlike recent national and international politics, the Issaquah candidates kept the question-and-answer session peaceful and civil, focusing on the issues rather than any rivalry.
Pauly, who has lived in Issaquah over 20 years, said that she “volunteered to serve the community almost as soon as the moving van left the driveway.” Elected to City Council in 2013, Pauly has served as deputy council president since 2016. She is active in the local business community, serving as the council’s liaison to the chamber and playing an active role in the Downtown Issaquah Association. Pauly is a project manager at GHD.
“I bring an expertise unique to the mayor’s position,” Pauly said, pointing to her engineering and city government background. At City Hall, she added, “I want to see things refreshed.”
Winterstein fell in love with Issaquah and moved here over 30 years ago. He has served on the City Council since being elected in 2011, during which time he spent two years as council president. He is a member of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Growth Management Policy Board and previously served on the city’s first Human Services Commission. Winterstein has worked in the software industry for three decades.
“An important quality of a mayor is that the mayor really listens … I want you to know that you’re going to be heard,” Winterstein said.
Blumenzweig has owned and operated Front Street wine bar Vino Bella, at which his grown children also work, since 2006. With 11 years of experience in running a mom n’ pop eatery, Blumenzweig believes he can act as a voice for the small business owners of Olde Town Issaquah. Blumenzweig and his family emigrated to the U.S. as refugees from Egypt in 1967, fleeing the persecution of Jews in the Six-Day War.
“I will do everything I can, just as I’ve run a business for 11 years,” Blumenzweig said, noting that he plans to work “openly, passionately and be willing to learn.”
Audience members had the opportunity to submit their own questions to the candidates, which the candidates answered unrehearsed. Fred Nystrom, director of Life Enrichment Options, moderated the question-and-answer session.
Being a luncheon for an organization of business owners, the first question was how the candidates plan to help encourage economic development in Issaquah, in particular for small businesses.
Blumenzweig said that it is vital for the city to “make sure it supports the business owners” and noted how hard it is “walking around Downtown seeing empty buildings.”
Speaking from experience, he said that the city has created expenses that can be a burden for business owners — for example, he said the permit for outdoor seating went from $25 per year to $300. As mayor, Blumenzweig said that he would work to lighten the load on local business owners with tax breaks.
“Taxation keeps on getting bigger and bigger … Our community is about the small businesses,” he said.
Winterstein stated that the city is doing a good job of investing in the economic development in Issaquah. He said the city is avidly trying to attract and retain businesses that can offer living-wage jobs.
“Part of the real backbone … is our small businesses,” he said. “They must thrive.”
With the popularity of online shopping, he said the world of business is changing, and he noted that businesses that “don’t have the right business model may not make it.”
According to Pauly, what the businesses of Issaquah need is for the city government to “get out of the way” of local commerce.
“There are codes that get in the way of you being successful,” she said to the business owners, emphasizing the need for the city to update its 20-year-old codes and ease the burdens they have created for shops and restaurants.
“Guess what — this is not the ‘90s,” she said. “We’ve got to take a new look.”
She told the businesses, “You are the ones who make our community thrive.”
The booming population growth of Issaquah and the surrounding area — a common theme at council meetings — also inevitably came up.
“Boy, does it present challenges,” Winterstein said of the spike in population that has occurred over the last two decades and is only projected to increase in the coming years.
The difficulties caused by regional growth, Winterstein said, are closely tied in with other hot-button issues for the area, such as traffic congestion and the affordable housing crisis. He talked of the need for affordable housing in the area “so that people can live in proximity of their jobs, put food on the table and have quality of life.”
“I want there to be an Issaquah my children can inherit,” Winterstein said.
Pauly said that she has no problem with the Growth Management Act, the Washington state law that aims to preserve the state’s natural beauty by requiring that local governments keep development restricted to within the Urban Growth Boundary (which runs just east of Issaquah).
“What I have is a problem with is the implementation” of the GMA, she said, and noted, “There is no harder task than to redevelop an area that is already developed.”
She pointed to the city’s current moratorium, which pauses certain development while defining standards for building, as a step in the right direction.
“Be patient with us, we will get this done,” she said.
Blumenzweig, however, believes the moratorium is too little too late.
“The damage is there already,” he said, noting that now the question is “how to get ourselves out of it.”
Working on Front Street every day, he has seen for himself how bad the traffic has gotten on that thoroughfare over the past decade. He said that discussing and solving intertwined issues such as traffic and growth requires “regional collaboration” with neighboring communities “rather than just sharing the burden ourselves.”
The candidates also addressed the specific problem of traffic congestion, which Issaquah residents continually list as one of the biggest negatives about the area.
Pauly said that pass-through traffic needs to be discouraged so that Issaquah’s larger city streets, such as Sunset Way and Front Street, are not constantly plugged with people driving through on their way to Maple Valley and Covington.
“People have always wanted to travel south; that’s not our problem,” she said.
The key to solving the issue, she said, is fixing the area’s highways, rather than the Issaquah-Hobart Road, as improving the latter will only bring more traffic along Front Street.
Blumenzweig talked of “working with experts” and conducting feasibility studies to find out which thoroughfares should have more lanes. One solution, he said, could be adding a third lane to Newport Way and reversing its direction in the morning and evening commutes so as to make things easier for drivers during the heaviest hours.
He also pointed to working regionally with partners to improve highways. He suggested partnering with King County to widen State Route 18.
Winterstein picked up a napkin off of a table to demonstrate that “there is no silver bullet … there is no traffic solution under this napkin.”
“We’re not going to get people to stop living south of us, we’re not going to get employees to stop hiring them,” he said, noting that it’s a complex, “multi-pronged issue.”
The Downtown Bellevue Transit Center, he said, has no parking spaces — its users reach the transit center on other buses.
“A long-term solution [for Issaquah] would be something like that as well,” he said. This way, regional commuters would not come into Issaquah in individual cars.
At the end of the luncheon, Chamber Director Kathy McCorry announced that this would be the last chamber luncheon of the summer.