Everett council candidates split on how to bring business to city

EVERETT — If there’s one thing Everett City Council candidates agree on, it’s that the city needs a thriving economy.

They couldn’t be farther apart on just how the city ought to do that.

Candidates Brenda Stonecipher, June Robinson and Drew Nielsen said they support the city’s effort to create a vibrant downtown, which includes spending money on projects like artist-designed light fixtures and other streetscape improvements on Hoyt Avenue.

The city’s administration says amenities downtown are one way to keep and attract workers and the companies that want to employ them.

The respective opponents of those three — Scott Bader, Ron Gipson and Erv Hoglund — all have expressed some level of discomfort with that philosophy.

The city wants to not just get companies to relocate here but also to keep the ones already here and help them expand, said Lanie McMullin, executive director of economic development.

Making that happen involves development incentives, landing a four-year university in town and consistent development standards. It even encompasses efforts like keeping the city’s streets and water system in tip-top shape.

A vibrant downtown is one piece of the puzzle, McMullin said. It used to be that workers would go to where the jobs were, and many of those jobs were based on natural resources. Think lumber mills or coal mines.

Those types of jobs are shrinking and what’s taking their place are jobs that could be done just about anywhere. Think engineers or biochemists.

When those employers weigh where they want to do business, they consider factors such as housing, tax rates and the skills and education of a potential work force. They also want to know if this is someplace their workers want to live, she said.

A company that wants to hire engineers fresh out of college, for instance, might find those potential employees want to live in a city with a vibrant night life. Companies might consider factors such as the quality of schools, a low crime rate, parks and museums and whether there’s a place for a spouse to work.

Even if the city can entice companies here, that doesn’t mean they can necessarily entice their employees to live in Everett. A recent study paid for by the city showed that 80 percent of the people who work at Everett companies live someplace else, McMullin said.

Where a company’s labor force will live is a crucial issue, said James McCusker, an economist and Herald business columnist. He added that economic development is fairly complex. While there’s strong evidence that amenities can help on that front, it’s not universally accepted among economists.

“The idea that Everett is alive and vibrant and growing is very important to attract companies,” he said. “It’s not an easy task and once you slip into a decaying city, it’s difficult to erase.”

At least two of the candidates, challengers Bader and Hoglund, have used one city project like a weapon in their campaigns. Both believe the city is wasting money by spending more than $1 million to fix up a city-owned building so a nonprofit theater group could lease the space.

Stonecipher and Nielsen continue to support the project. Gipson — along with the rest of the council at the time — initially supported the theater project but said he no longer does.

The city doesn’t need amenities downtown to attract companies, Gipson said.

“We just need to promote our city,” he said.

Let downtown be safe and clean and well-maintained but forget spending money on big projects, Bader said. Instead, it’s important to ensure that the city’s leadership is as friendly as possible to new employers and the businesses that are already here.

Hoglund, who described himself as a strict fiscal conservative, said anything beyond paying police officers, keeping the streets in good repair and the like, should be funded privately.

Council president Shannon Affholter, also up for re-election, said he supports investing in public projects that make sense downtown. For him, that means mainly infrastructure projects such as the Broadway bridge replacement and the streetscape project on Hoyt Avenue.

Still, he said, the money spent on improving the building for the theater program would have been better directed for something like expanding and improving the Evergreen Branch of the Everett Public Library, which is bursting at the seams.

His opponent, Jackie Minchew, questioned the commonly held view of never-ending growth. He said if elected he’d view those types of decisions through the lens of someone who wants to combat declining fuel supplies and global climate change.

In Snohomish County, nearly one-fifth of registered voters have already returned ballots, according to the latest numbers provided by the auditor’s office. Of the 385,841 ballots mailed out, 85,715 were returned Friday morning.

In Everett, just under 10,000 people have returned their ballots. That’s one-fifth of the total number of people registered to vote in the city.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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