Female mayors discuss opportunities in their cities

Emerging leaders focus on diversity, development and deliberate actions.

The mayors of Mercer Island, Everett, Arlington, Kirkland, Issaquah and Kent discussed growth, economic development and business opportunities in their cities at a luncheon in Seattle on Sept. 13. They pitched mixed-use buildings, housing projects and even bridges to their audience, many of whom were real estate executives.

But they also focused on how to make sure growth in the region is equitably shared. The six Puget Sound area leaders brought a distinct perspective, because they are all women. The event was hosted by CREW Seattle, a networking organization dedicated to advancing the success of women in commercial real estate.

“As women, we traditionally don’t have equitable access to capital… And frankly we’ve been kept out of corporate boards. There are more men named John serving on corporate boards than women,” said Rebecca Lowell, the acting director of Seattle’s office of economic development, who moderated the forum.

When Cassie Franklin took office on Jan. 1, she became the first woman to be elected mayor of Everett. In 2010, shortly before Mercer Island Mayor Debbie Bertlin joined the city council, it was all male.

Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen, who also is running for state representative in the 48th district, gave a plug for more women to run for office or join local boards and commissions — a call to action that was echoed by the other mayors.

“Women approach things differently than men… Women are a little bit more thoughtful, and sometimes question ourselves,” said Kent Mayor Dana Ralph. “We’re all smart. We can do this, and don’t doubt that… Just take the step, because there are six men behind you who are going to do it if you don’t get out there.”

Many said they’re emphasizing gender and cultural diversity within their organizations. Franklin said that when her city looked at its staff, it noted a strong white and male majority. Ralph said her city is the 10th most diverse in the country, and it’s trying to make hiring decisions that reflect that.

Bertlin said a good step for Mercer Island was engaging in an intentional recruitment process when it was looking for a new city manager. It resulted in the hiring of the first woman and person of color to serve in the role.

“The government — city officials, all of our boards and commissions and the staff — should represent the diversity of the population that we serve,” Walen said. “We, right now, have a lot of work to do in this area.”

The mayors consistently used the words “deliberate” and “intentional” when talking about bringing more women into politics and government. They said mentorship is also important.

“Those of us who are fortunate enough to be women in leadership really have a responsibility to ensure that we’re paving the pathway, and we’re opening those corridors for other women,” said Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert.

They also talked about influencing the next generation. Bertlin, inspired by the activism she saw among students after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., said she wants to make sure they stay active citizens, and vote. Issaquah Mayor Mary LouPauly said it’s important for mayors, especially female mayors, to be seen out in their communities, and campaigned on the concept of “City Hall Outside.” Tolbert said she teaches a civics class to fourth graders, and started a Youth Council in Arlington.

Local leaders also are creating opportunities for adult women — for example, a women’s leadership group recently was formed within the Sound Cities Association. Franklin said cities are learning to adapt and change, and female mayors aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.

The mayors also see a lot of business opportunity in each of their cities. With Sound Transit’s light rail coming to many of their communities, including Mercer Island in 2023 and Everett in 2036, transit-oriented development is a focus.

Franklin said the recently developed Metro Everett plan is “all about mixed use,” with incentives for height and affordable housing. Her city, which already is a major job center and will soon add commercial air at Paine Field, plans to increase its population significantly in the coming years.

Pauly said her city has the opposite problem: it’s rapidly adding housing, but wants to be seen as an employment center and an urban hub.

“While Issaquah is only 17 miles from Seattle and known more for being a suburb, it’s really got a plan to be a city,” Pauly said. “But if we’re going to be a city, and part of the great urban mix of the cities on the Eastside and in the Puget Sound region, we need that other piece of it, and that’s jobs.”

Ralph said the Kent Valley business community also wants to transform its identity, from one centered around warehouses to a more forward-looking industry: space travel. It’s already home to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and is looking to attract and grow ancillary businesses.

“In Arlington, we’re on the cusp of being recognized as a regional manufacturing and industrial center in the Puget Sound region. We should have that designation by spring of next year,” Tolbert said, adding that the city also is focusing on investing in education and workforce training to create a pipeline for those jobs.

Bertlin said that while Mercer Island is unlikely to be a major employment center, it is looking to add vibrancy to its Town Center. The city wants to partner with a developer on a project that will provide commuter parking, housing and retail its downtown core.

The mayors agreed that while planning for growth and redevelopment, they want to retain what they love about their cities. Livability and sustainability were priorities, along with being welcoming and inclusive communities where people can live, work and play.

To that end, they mentioned other potential projects: shoreline management, trails and multi-modal transportation corridor development (including the Cross Kirkland Corridor and Mercer Island’s Aubrey Davis Park) and diverse housing options. Pauly said she believes private-public partnerships are the way of the future.

Of course, audience members had questions about tough topics, including the opioid crisis, homelessness and taxes. Franklin said homelessness is not an issue that one city or mayor alone can solve, and that it has to be a regional discussion.

Walen noted that the progress made by OneTable, a taskforce convened by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, was derailed by the head tax discussion in Seattle. Ralph said cities need to listen to the needs of residents and businesses.

“It has to be an open dialogue,” she said. “It’s just about reaching out… Playing a liaison role is key.”

For more on CREW Seattle, see www.crewseattle.org.

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