Everett mayor takes the lead on aerospace

As the state of Washington ramps up an effort to secure work on Boeing’s planned 777X, one local elected official has been thrust into the spotlight.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson is being asked to take on more responsibility as a local political advocate for aerospace commerce. He is increasingly prominent at conferences and recently was asked to lead a 777X task force.

“I’m trying to be a local voice, a responsive voice,” at the Legislature and with industry, Stephanson said in an interview.

Stephanson quietly has filled a void left by departed Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon. Even before his resignation in May, Reardon had become a less-visible aerospace advocate as a long-running political scandal enveloped the county executive’s office.

The state also lost a recognized voice for aerospace with the conclusion of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s term in January. The state and county have relatively new leaders now, so Stephanson has become the tried-and-true voice of aerospace.

Gov. Jay Inslee recognized Stephanson by appointing the mayor to lead a committee to ensure permitting for potential 777X facilities goes smoothly.

“I have full confidence that (Stephanson’s) leadership will enable to us to make sure we aren’t leaving any stone unturned in our efforts to win the 777X in the short term,” Inslee wrote of the mayor in an email.

On Thursday, as the committee recommended, the governor instructed the state Department of Commerce to officially recognize the 777X project as one of statewide significance. The designation is allowed under a never-before-used statute that would allow speedy planning and permitting should Boeing select Everett or Paine Field as a site of 777X assembly.

As a member of the committee, John Monroe, chief operating officer of Economic Alliance Snohomish County, has watched Stephanson take on more responsibility as an aerospace-industry advocate. “He was absolutely right person to lead the task force,” Monroe said.

Proactively working to clear the way for a new 777X facility in Everett is opposite of how local and state officials handled Boeing’s expansion for the original 777 in the 1990s. At the time, the process for obtaining permits infuriated Boeing. And elected officials expected Boeing, not state or local coffers, to pay for mitigation of increased traffic and other effects.

Stephanson says that attitude toward business has changed, especially as the state has watched Boeing expand outside the Puget Sound region.

“We have to continually ask ourselves: How does our cost position compare? Are there ways for us to be more competitive?” Stephanson said.

Stephanson drew praise from Pat Shanahan, senior vice president of airplane programs for Boeing, during an interview late last year. Stephanson’s support for projects around Boeing’s Paine Field site “has been fantastic,” Shanahan said.

“The advocacy we have here locally is a big deal,” he said.

Whether that will be enough to convince Boeing to build the 777X in Everett is unclear. As lawmakers convened in Olympia earlier this year, Inslee outlined education and transportation as key issues for the aerospace industry. Stephanson agrees that both are important to winning 777X work.

“I’m feeling very positive about higher education” after the legislative session, which ended June 29, Stephanson said.

The Legislature gave $10 million to Washington State University to help design and build a facility near Everett Community College. WSU began offering mechanical engineering courses in Everett in 2012. The university plans to add three new degree programs in 2014.

Transportation, however, was another story.

“We haven’t done enough,” Stephanson said. He’s unsure if that’s a deal-breaker for Boeing.

Snohomish County leaders, including Stephanson, had lobbied for 16 construction projects, many of which benefit the aerospace industry. Proposals ranged from $1.5 million to make it easier for trucks to turn from 41st Street onto Rucker Avenue in Everett to $44 million for an interchange at Highway 526 and Hardeson Road. Many of the projects on the county’s wish list did not survive as priorities by the end of the session. And lawmakers adjourned without taking action on transportation.

Transportation “can’t be ignored,” Stephanson said. “We’ve got to do a better job of articulating how important it is to our citizens.”

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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