ARLINGTON — There were a few seconds of silence after the announcement. It wasn’t what the group of 30-some people in the City Council chambers had been hoping for.
They gathered themselves quickly and applauded loudly for Huntington, West Virginia, the winner of the America’s Best Communities competition.
Arlington and Darrington were finalists in the contest, but did not place first, second or third.
Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and former Snohomish County executive Bob Drewel traveled to Colorado this week to present their pitch for the $3 million prize.
Kristin Banfield, the city spokeswoman who headed up a live viewing in Arlington of the winners announcement, said the Stillaguamish Valley is victorious without the prize money. Hundreds of people are working to make Arlington and Darrington stronger, happier places. That isn’t over.
“We are not stopping,” she said. “You can’t get in front of this train.”
There is nothing more powerful than a community working together, Drewel told the contest judges Wednesday. He, Tolbert and Rankin went over the progress that has been made to improve the economy and quality of life in the Stillaguamish Valley since the deadly 2014 Oso mudslide.
Tolbert talked about Arlington’s efforts to land industrial employers and to fill downtown storefronts by supporting mom-and-pop shops, many of which are born more from passion than expertise. She stressed the importance of the cities’ new youth councils and volunteers who have stepped in to spruce up their hometowns. City officials have created local programs for small businesses and fought for regional incentives for industry, she said.
Rankin shared pride in how Darrington has turned to the surrounding natural beauty and wilderness, particularly through the Glacier Peak Institute, an outdoor environmental and STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Math) education program. He also described new wireless internet hot spots and a coworking space in town meant to ensure that students and remote workers have reliable connections from an area that can become isolated. That space was put to use last week when Highway 530 was closed for five days.
“It’s easy to feel like an underdog when you’re a small community,” Rankin said. “We’re lacking in staff, and we’re lacking in funding, but we take advantage of our size to do things we can only do because we’re small.”
The Arlington-Darrington team was one of eight finalists in the three-year best communities contest. There were 138 initial applicants, representing nearly 350 communities in 27 states. The winners were from West Virginia, Arizona and Georgia.
The Stilly Valley became involved in the competition not long after the mudslide killed 43 people and blocked Highway 530. Marysville had planned to join Arlington in the contest but stepped aside because of the need in Darrington.
The planning team kept a journal. Before heading to the finals, they sat down to review. It was eye-opening to see how much they’d accomplished, Tolbert said. She estimates that $91 million has been invested in projects related to the revitalization plan, including grants for road work and funding for trails and parks.
“We were hit hard by the recession, as most rural communities were,” Tolbert told the judges Wednesday. “It was a tough start to this decade for us. … We did what rural communities do in a time of crisis. We came together.”
Rankin said the heart of the plan is a desire to innovate. He hopes the projects inspire young people who leave for school or work to return.
Tolbert and Rankin said they felt their communities were champions even before leaving for the finals. At the event, they connected with mayors from all over the country. They plan to come home with inspiration.
Other local leaders at the viewing in Arlington shared their optimism. The work done in just three years is impressive, Snohomish County Councilman Nate Nehring said.
“While we didn’t win the prize, I think we all can recognize that these communities are winners,” he said.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; email@example.com