By Elizabeth Miller
On Tuesday, February 27, 2018, Mayor Nancy Backus addressed the residents of Auburn in the annual State of the City. The address was given at the Auburn Avenue Theatre and was also live-streamed on the city’s WatchAuburn YouTube channel. Instead of just reviewing what had been done in 2017, Backus wished to have a conversation and reflect how the community has shaped our city over the last year and will continue to transform it “into a place we love even more.”
The night began with a blessing from Chaplin Ginger Passarelli, followed by Miss Auburn’s 2018 Outstanding Teen, Olivia Thomas singing the National Anthem. After, the Mayor was introduced to the stage. She began her address thanking those in attendance, as well as the City Council and the work they do for Auburn. Backus individually called out the Councilmembers present, Bill Peloza, John Holman, Larry Brown and Deputy Mayor Bob Baggett. Many of the city’s staff represented the city at the address, standing to be recognized and thanked.
Backus Encourages Residents to Fall in Love with Their City
After polling the audience regarding what they loved about Auburn, Backus went on to lay out the overall tone of the night’s address. “The question I present to you here tonight and is how can we, as your city government, we foster and grow our collective love of community? How do we enrich, and support this process? Many times city government is seen as the functional end of the community. We ensure that the water flows into our homes, that the roads and the buildings are safe for use, that the streetlights come on at night. But if that is all that we strive for, I believe we are missing our bigger purpose. When we treat our role as a city in a mechanical way, we create our result that is absolutely lifeless. But when we lead from a place of true love for our community, the result drives economic and social development.”
According to the 2006 Knight Foundation study, Soul of the Community, only 24% of some 28,000 participants across 26 cities interviewed, were attached to their community. 36% were neutral and 40% were unattached. This translates to roughly 7 out of 10 people indicating that they could live anywhere and feel they could have the same living experience.
“I want better for Auburn,” Backus declared. “I believe, that by finding ways to strengthen our attachment and commitment to our city, by increasing our love of place, we will create a city that enriches all of us.”
“I believe, that by finding ways to strengthen our attachment and commitment to our city, by increasing our love of place, we will create a city that enriches all of us.”
Maintaining the City for the Citizens
Acknowledging the keystones of the city are its livability, Backus reviewed the city government’s accomplishments for Auburn in 2017. The city invested over $30million in capital projects that help reduce the congestion and help improve the safety of Auburn’s roadways. These improvements will positively impact the safety of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. The infrastructure improvements will also alleviate some flood risks, as well as increase the water capacity.
Infrastructure improvements in 2017 included repairing or replacing over 30 miles of deteriorating roads. More than 4 miles of sidewalks were added and repaired throughout the city. Six new traffic signal systems, two dynamic message signs and three rapid flashing beacons at non-signalized crosswalks were installed. More than a mile of new water main, a mile of sewer pipe and 2 miles of storm drain pipe were also added. The installation of three new water pressure reducing valve stations was completed. Two new system well pumps were added, and the water supply was tested for safety more than 1,500 times. In total, the Maintenance and Operations team completed more than 22,000 resident submitted tasks.
In 2017, code compliance resolved 1,140 cases. Frequently residents with compliance issues have circumstances that require empathy. For this reason, the city has teamed with different groups, like Green River Phi Theta Kappa and the Auburn Adventist Academy, to assist homeowners who need it, to abate the issue.
Auburn maintains over 30 miles of trails and 600 acres of parkland spread over 34 parks. The city’s annual clean sweep event, held in April, saw more than 700 participants. Projects during that event included a new playground at Roegner Park, clearing paths at Cedar Lane and Auburn Lake, planting trees at Les Gove Park and spreading woodchips in community gardens. The first annual Swamp Stomp held in January 2018, had volunteers stomping down invasive grasses in Auburn’s environmental park. Native species were then planted, to enhance the environment for the wetland’s creatures.
Having acquired the old Auburn post office, the city is restoring and renovating the building. The historic landmark, built in 1937, will become the city’s Arts and Culture Center. Nearly a half a million dollars in grants were acquired to restore the building.
Facing the Affordable Housing and Homelessness Crisis
Auburn’s population rests just shy of 80,000, having increased by nearly 10,000 residents in the past decade. This and the demands on Seattle housing has impacted the demand for affordable housing in the city. The risk of losing housing, and becoming homeless, has become greater due to the housing market rate increases and availability decreases.
During an annual count in January 2017, it was found that 11,643 people were experiencing homelessness in King County. Of that, 1,102 individuals were centered in Renton, Burien, Kent, and Auburn. That is nearly 20% of King County’s unsheltered individuals. 73% of those individuals cited housing costs as their primary reason for homelessness.
In an effort to combat homelessness the city has a Homeless Taskforce to address homelessness in Auburn. Backus also represents Auburn on several the regional committees and boards that are focused on this issue. But, she acknowledged that more must be done.
Saying Auburn must lead by example, Backus shared the success of the Ray of Hope Resource Center that opened in August 2017. The city partnered with Valley cities, and the Auburn Food Bank to make the day shelter a reality. This center provides access to services that include job training and support, mental health and addiction services, and hygiene services. According to Backus, these services are meant as “a hand up, not a hand out.”
In 2017 the city of Auburn provided more than $390,000 to the residents of Auburn for critical home repairs through the housing repair assistance program. The program provides low-income residents with grants to repair items such as a leaky roof, or broken furnace. These programs are another means to assist residents to stay in their homes, and maintain affordable housing options in Auburn.
Joining King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkin, Backus co-convened a regional initiative, One Table in January 2018. This coalition will bring together government, business leaders, service providers, advocates, local residents will, and philanthropists, to focus on the root causes of homelessness, including affordable housing
Backus implored that we cannot solve the issues of this century “if we remain indifferent or isolated.” To her, a resolution will come “when we come together as a community.”
Combating the Heroin and Opioid Epidemic
Backus reviewed ways that the city has worked to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic. Safe injection sites, she once again reassured, will not have a place in Auburn. In June the city hosted a town hall to discuss the cause of the rise in this addiction, as well as manners in which it can be prevented. During the town hall, one individual shared their personal story with opioid addiction.
In 2017, all Auburn Police Department patrol units were outfitted with Narcan, an overdose-reversing drug. In less than 12 months the drug has been administered 25 times thus far, averaging more than twice monthly. Three of those times have resulted in life-saving medals being awarded to APD officers. Additionally, every pharmacy in Auburn also carries Narcan.
Backus compassionately affirmed “Every life is worth saving. And we hope that by rescuing someone who is experiencing a drug overdose – both by administering Narcan and then offering them treatment options, we are sending them a clear message that they are of value. And that we are here to help them move out of a life of drug use and abuse.”
Last year Auburn saw a 17.9% reduction in overall crime. Backus acknowledged that there is still much more work to do. She stated that for those impacted by crime, “progress can’t come soon enough. But we, as your city, are committed to you and to making the city the safest it can be.”
One of the ways the city is working toward that progress is with the addition of six new positions on APD’s force. One of these positions saw an additional bike cop added, doubling their numbers. Officers are also continuing to focus on more community policing efforts, to engage with citizens outside of emergency response situations.
Addressing Mental Health Needs
A 2015 King County Health Assessments report shows that South King County, including Auburn, was among the most negatively impacted areas in the state for health, housing and economic opportunity. The report showed that as a result of individuals living in the south end statistically have a life expectancy 13 years shorter than others in the county. Utilizing this data, the city took action and formed the Blue Ribbon Committee for a Healthier Auburn in 2016.
The need for increased access to mental health treatment, among other health issues, was one of the committee’s main initiatives. A result of this focus is a one of a kind mental health program that has been shared throughout the nation. The R.E.A.D.Y. Program is an hour-long program that provides training on what to do when encountering an individual in mental health crises. Backus described it as a “down to earth, ‘CPR for mental health’” training.
When the audience was polled as to how many knew someone who has faced mental health challenge, 86% said yes. Though it is estimated that 1 in 30 people in Washington is dealing with a severe mental illness; only 729 beds in the state are dedicated to psychiatric care.
1 in 30 people in Washington is dealing with a severe mental illness; only 729 beds in the state are dedicated to psychiatric care.
Backus declared that it was clear the work to address this issue must begin in Auburn. Similar to the Heroin and Opioid town hall, she announced a mental health town hall will be held this summer.
A Tribute to the Heritage Building and the Victims of the Fire
A somber point of the address was the recap of the Heritage Building fire. Grateful that no human lives were lost, Backus sadly spoke of the loss of an “iconic part of our downtown.”
Quoting Dr. Anderson, Backus agreed that “There might be bigger cities in this area, but there no bigger communities.” She spoke proudly of Auburn’s response to the Heritage fire. From the abundant donations from citizens, the meals delivered by local restaurants, and the quick work of the economic development department to get funding chances for the businesses. Five of the nine impacted businesses have either identified new locations or re-opened, most on Main Street. The future of the Heritage Building site is unknown, but it will be a critical part of Auburn’s transitioning and changing downtown.
Reflecting on Auburn’s growth, Backus celebrated the addition of more “third places” in Auburn’s city core. Places to go catch up with friends, people watch, read a good book, or simply go and be relaxed outside of home or work. In addition to these locations, Auburn’s downtown has seen more restaurants open in the past year and a half.
Revitalizing Auburn’s Downtown Core
Seizing the opportunity of these new businesses, and their pull to downtown, the Business Improvement Area and Auburn Downtown Association have been putting efforts into rejuvenating Auburn’s downtown core. One thing the BIA and ADA are planning are more downtown events, like the recent Mardi Gras event. The event saw the two New Orleans inspired restaurants, The Quarters and Geaux Brewery, bookending Main Street with lively celebrations.
Two new downtown projects will be breaking ground within the year. Both will be mixed-use buildings, adding more than 300 new, market rate, housing units downtown with retail space on the ground level. According to Backus, “by creating that strong urban living environment in our city core…by creating a sustainable population for businesses to sell their goods, while also creating a vibrant shopping and dining experience, [it] draws more people into our downtown. But most importantly we create a sense of vitality.”
Another location that is seeing economic attention is the old Valley 6 drive-in property. After more than a decade the Robinson’s Property Group has begun the development process. The 70-acre site will be mix use buildings and retail operations. The property is currently open for pre-lease. In October the city learned that the GSA will sell the federal complex in the commercial district. The opening of this 129-acre piece of land will provide development prospects not seen in Auburn for decades.
Housing, retail and job opportunities are now possible in a location that has only housed vacant warehouses, for more than half a century.
After sharing a promotional video from Auburn Tourism, Backus shared that “we’re all co-creators in that story that is our city. It is a level playground, where we all have something to contribute.” She quoted Peter Kageyama, author of Love Where You Live and For the Love of Cities, saying “it’s easy to say you love your place. But it’s much harder to show it.”
Backus closed her address with a plea to the audience to not mistake small for unimportant. “In our personal lives, it’s most often the tiny, tiny, acts of love, or the tiny acts of neglect, which make or break a relationship. Be a city builder. No matter how big, no matter how small. Don’t just rent your city. Invest in it. Own it. Love it. Be #AuburnProud.”
Students, business owners, residents, some doggos and the Mayor shared their love of Auburn, and how happy they are to live here, in a video that played after the Mayor’s address.