by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Seattle has been experiencing a period of unprecedented growth in the past decade. There are signs of it all around us, from the new and bigger buildings, to the seemingly sudden proliferation of rail, to the packed-like-sardines atmosphere at our farmer’s markets. Downtown alone is home to more than 40,000 people, a number the city expects to double in the next one to two decades. Tourists are spending billions every year and business, still trudging through the recession, seems to be picking up. This growth comes with a variety of challenges and opportunities, many of which the Office of the Mayor and other departments of city government hope to tackle in the coming year.
The biggest dish on Seattle’s table heading in 2013 is the Center City Initiative. It’s framed by Mayor McGinn’s hard-working copywriters as a government-led rally around the social and economic power plant of the downtown core. In truth, the nitty gritty of the CCI is a major overhaul and streamlining of the way Seattle’s elected leaders address crime, cleanliness, and infrastructure in the tallest part of the city. It comes with open acknowledgments of certain problems endemic to Belltown, the Central Business District, and Pioneer Square, such as homelessness, sanitation, and the drug trade.
The Center City Initiative is, in essence, an inter-agency operation. It involves officials from the Mayor’s Office, staff from City Council and many related departments, Metro Transit, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the Washington State Department of Corrections. Four project managers have been assigned to organize efforts in Belltown, the Third Avenue Commercial Core, Pioneer Square, and the International District. This process involves a significant amount of community outreach and a small mountain of paperwork to address law enforcement reform, public sanitation services, housing, and many other topics.
For example, the most recent, concrete change in law enforcement policy resulting from the CCI is the redirection of minor crimes offenders who are mentally ill or addicts away from Seattle’s prisons. Mirroring a similar policy that has seen some positive results in the United Kingdom, such offenders arrested in Belltown are being sent to treatment centers rather than to jail. If the pilot program in Belltown is deemed a success, it will be implemented on a wider scale throughout the city’s five precincts.
The city is also attempting to formalize a system for job creation in traditionally under-served sectors. The Career Bridge program will enter its pilot phase in 2013, standing on a foundation of $210,000 made of funds from the Office of Economic Development and a Community Development Block Grant. Career Bridge is designed to provide support for people who have a hard time getting steady work, including people with limited education and experience, a criminal record, language barrier issues, and major financial strain. The program is only expected to serve some 240 people by 2014, but it is still in its early stages.
Concerning business and energy infrastructure, Seattle’s rooftops are set to become a lot shinier in the next year. Much noise has been made in the past several months about solar energy in Washington state, especially in the campaign rhetoric of Governor in potentia Jay Inslee. Seattle City Light recently announced a partnership with Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development to speed up the city’s adoption of solar panels via the Solarize Washington program. This expands renewable energy options for Seattle City Light customers and provides free workshops on solar energy topics for residents. Putting more panels on Seattle’s roofs would be more than a plume in the cap of green-thinking city officials; Washington state has a growing solar products manufacturing industry second only to the sustainability-friendly climes of Al Franken’s Minnesota.
As we push through the last few months of 2012, our city finds itself hurtling headlong toward major metropolis status. Our town, stubbornly small-time for a century and change, now has all the weight of big city money, big city crime, and big city ambitions. The above are just a handful of examples of how people in government, business, and the non-profit world are attempting to steer a system that could very easily become unwieldy at a time when we haven’t finished laying the tracks.