With two other judges, Gov. Jay Inslee (left) listens to Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert (center) as she, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and Bob Drewel (right), practice their pitch for the America’s Best Communities competition Thursday at the Arlington Airport.

Stilly Valley a finalist in national Best Communities contest

DURHAM, N.C. — A plan to turn tragedy into a brighter future for people in the Stillaguamish Valley has been selected as a finalist in a national competition to identify the best communities in the country.

The partnership between Arlington and Darrington was judged as one of eight finalists picked from 15 semifinalists in the America’s Best Communities contest. The three-year competition drew 138 applicants when it started in 2014, representing nearly 350 communities in 27 states. Competitors were tasked with creating plans and launching projects to boost their local economies.

A focal point of the plan is the ongoing recovery after the deadly Oso mudslide in March 2014.

The win means the Stilly Valley communities will receive $100,000 to use over the next 11 months.

In April 2017, the finalists will be judged on their progress and could win a top prize of $3 million.

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin and former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel traveled to North Carolina to pitch the Arlington and Darrington Community Revitalization Plan to a panel of judges.

“The landslide was not the cause of our economic struggles, but it became a catalyst for a solution,” Drewel said.

After the slide, local leaders had the attention of state and federal lawmakers, nonprofit organizations and businesses. They used that momentum to start planning for a future with more jobs and better quality of life in the Stillaguamish Valley.

The timber industry once was the lifeblood of the valley, Drewel said.

“But by the 1980s, conservation efforts and changes in land management had dealt a blow to the industry,” he said. “Timber mills closed down, workers were laid off and the local economy crumbled.”

Leaders have wanted to diversify business in the area for years. Planning already was under way when they entered America’s Best Communities.

The plan is based around six goals: infrastructure, industry, community development, resilience, placemaking and innovation. Under each category are specific projects.

Officials plan to set up two new wireless internet hotspots, one each in Arlington and Darrington. Equal access to internet is vital for business and education, Drewel said.

The plan also calls for a tool library in Arlington where business owners could borrow what they need for specific projects. The hope is to eventually set up a lab with advanced technology for businesses and schools to use.

The document highlights the Glacier Peak Institute, a Darrington program where students learn about habitat restoration, forestry, water quality and early warning for natural disasters.

“With the funds available, we will buy higher quality monitoring equipment,” Drewel said.

Another piece of the plan is a memorial bike ride in March 2017, three years after the mudslide, to honor the past and celebrate the future, Drewel said.

As for bringing in jobs, Arlington is focused on advanced manufacturing, Tolbert said.

“Our proximity to Boeing and the aerospace resurgence that is happening in the Puget Sound area has been a natural transition for us,” she said.

Arlington has 170 manufacturing businesses. A developer recently bought land that previously housed the area’s last hardwood mill and wants to put in a million square feet of industrial space.

“In between (Arlington and Darrington), it’s some of the most beautiful country God has created,” Tolbert said. “It is such a natural for outdoor recreation and tourism.”

Recreation is one key for Darrington, Rankin said. The other is sustainable forestry. A group of experts from timber and conservation organizations formed the Darrington Collaborative to focus on replacing lost timber jobs with other forest-based careers, Rankin said.

A panel of five judges picked the finalists. There was a representative from the Weather Channel, the CEO of a North Carolina foundation, an urban developer, the founder of an entrepreneurs’ network and a researcher from a nonprofit policy center.

The contest started two years ago and there still is work to do, said Kathleen Abernathy, executive vice president of Frontier Communications, which sponsored the contest along with DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel. This is the first America’s Best Communities competition and the entries have been impressive, she said.

“There are a lot of political campaigns out there that are talking about what’s wrong with America, what’s not working,” Abernathy told competitors. “Clearly they haven’t met you.”

The Arlington-Darrington team weren’t the only semifinalists from Washington. Wenatchee-East Wenatchee competed but was not chosen as a finalist. They received $25,000 to continue their work.

In the finals, Arlington-Darrington is going up against: Chicago Lakes area, Minnesota; Huntington, West Virginia; Lake Havasu City, Arizona; Madison, Indiana; Statesboro, Georgia; Tualatin, Oregon; and Valley County-Meadows Valley, Idaho.

“Few communities have endured the challenges that have faced Arlington and Darrington, and fewer still have emerged with the same unity and determination as this remarkable and resilient community,” Drewel told judges on Wednesday. “Our community endured a tragedy, but we are not about to let it define us. We are building a new future and, like so many others in the room, we believe that we are America’s best community.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com

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