Sammamish councilor’s idea for development task force still undeveloped

Those who hoped to hear details of John James' plan for an economic development task force were disappointed. That there should be one appears to be the extent of his proposal at the moment, still missing any specific ideas on who should be on it or what it should do.

At a joint meeting of the Sammamish City Council and the Sammamish Planning Commission in February, new councilmember John James voiced an idea to form an economic development task force.

That February meeting marked the hand-off to the council of the planning commission’s Town Center development regulations, and James used the opportunity to express his desire for a proactive effort by the city to identify and engage with potential tenants – to pursue and market opportunities for business and development in Sammamish.

It was an idea that caught the attention of the Citizens for Sammamish (CFS), who this year have stepped up their efforts to be involved in the life of the city and the decisions made by its managers.

And so it was on Monday night that James came to be the latest guest at CFS’s series of regular meetings, the citizens eager to hear the new councilor’s thoughts on a range of city issues – particularly finances, but also the place for seniors in the proposed recreation center, and the idea of an ombudsman to represent resident’s concerns with their government.

But those who hoped to hear details of James’ plan for an economic development task force were disappointed. That there should be one appears to be the extent of his proposal at the moment, still missing any specific ideas on who should be on it or what it should do.

“It was unfortunate that he was not at all prepared for that discussion,” CFS organizer Ramiro Valderrama told The Reporter on Tuesday.

James did say he felt it was important to first attract an anchor tenant, after which other businesses would follow.

“And not your typical large grocery retailer, but an office anchor,” he said, adding that “however, there are only so many Amazon’s ready to move into Lake Union.

Former councilor Kathy Huckabay was at Monday’s meeting, and said this week that an economic development task force was “an idea whose time has come,” adding it was important that any push for development did not come at the expense of other community priorities.

“We need to be looking at what economic development will raise money for the city, but will also be palatable for the community,” she said. Huckabay said there was “absolutely a need” for the establishment of a group to focus on economic development, suggesting it could be headed by a consultant with experience in the field.

“It cannot be just a case of ‘if you build it they will come.’ There needs to be some movement,” Huckabay said, adding that developments such as the Issaquah Highlands made for stiff competition for commercial tenants. Just like Sammamish, Highlands developer Port Blakely is seeking an anchor tenant to draw foot traffic and commercial activity, a search that has continued for more than five years with little success.

Despite minimal input from James himself, Monday night’s meeting demonstrated that CFS certainly is a hotbed of ideas and opinions about what Sammamish needs to do and consider in both the short and the long term future.

At present, the city’s financial picture is clearly issue number 1. CFS has formed a finance sub-committee, spearheaded by resident Harry Shed, to closely examine the city’s books and monitor the spending decisions of city hall.

And Shed’s message is clear – “the city is running out of money and appears to be doing little about it.”

Shed said on Monday that the original long term city plan called for the establishment of a strategic reserve fund, where a percentage of the city’s operating budget was set aside each year and held for a rainy day.

“But, what ever happened to that, I don’t know,” he said. Shed acknowledged that all plans for the city were contingent on how much money they had.

“The financial situation is basic to the whole enchilada,” he said. “In January of 2009, the finance department did some good work, put together a good presentation of the financial picture, and the coming of the crossover point. But nothing has happened since.”

The city’s outlook, according to most of those assembled on Monday night, is definitely grim.

“In the next ten years, the best you will get out of the Town Center is something like Saffron,” said resident John Galvin.

Later in the meeting, when James said “I am on the record as saying that a utility tax should be considered only as a last resort,” Galvin responded “well, we’re already here.” And many in the room on Monday night agreed with that assessment.

James, too, agreed that money would be tight in years to come.

“I believe infrastructure projects that people think we can fund out of our budgets will have to be bond related,” he said.

Seniors and the Rec Center

Claradell Shed, chair of the CFS Seniors subcommittee said her group had been talking with the city’s parks department and the Boys and Girls Club to ensure the proposed recreation center at the old Sammamish Library had sufficient programs, and spaces, for seniors.

“As it is now, there is very much an emphasis on youth,” she said.

Claradell Shed and John Stilz both pointed to the popularity of seniors centers in neighboring cities – the Redmond Seniors Center accommodates between 400 and 600 users a day – as evidence of how a center could be utilized here. With users paying about $40 a year for membership to a senior’s center, plus additional charges for programs such as computer and cooking classes, operators of the center have the potential for significant revenues.

Claradell Shed said her group had discussed with the city using the facilities at local high schools to begin a number of seniors programs, as a way to gauge interest in the activities and as practice for their implementation in the recreation center, “just to get a feel for integrating Sammamish people into these programs.”

The possibility of neighborhood watch programs in Sammamish was raised, though James was unable to comment, responding instead with a mention of local earthquake preparedness programs.

Huckabay said that, during her time on the city council, there had been an interest in neighborhood watch programs as a way of improving home security and assisting the city’s relatively small police force, but former Chief of Police Brad Thompson had demonstrated little support for the idea.

“We have a Police Chief now who has shown he is in favor of a neighborhood watch program,” Huckabay said.

City/citizen liaison role?

Regarding the idea of an ombudsman-type role in the city, to perhaps act as an informal liaison between the city and resident groups, James spoke of his experience as a student ombudsman at the University of California, a role he believed was often little more than ceremonial.

“I would want something like that to have some real teeth behind it before I could be supported of it,” he said.

Following Shoreline Master Program negotiations last year, resident organizer Mike Collins said the creation of a quasi-staff member that could informally explain matters of city code and process, and work the residents groups away from the formal constraints of public meetings, would go a long way to resolving disputes before they had begun and would promote more constructive citizen engagement.

While CFS were supportive of such a role, they were hesitant to suggest the creation of another staff position, in a time when they are advocating the city operate with as lean a staff as possible.

“We already have seven ombudsman in the city,” Stilz said. “One of the them is sitting right there – our councilors.”

Sammamish Deputy Mayor Nancy Whitten will be the guest at CFS’s meeting on May 3, followed by Mayor Don Gerend on June 7.