One of the last bedroom communities in the Puget Sound area braces for a likely economic boom.
On its surface, Tim Morgan’s job is pretty straightforward: Curb the flow of Maple Valley residents who commute every day to jobs in other parts of the Eastside and King County.
“We have a lot of talented people taking buses out of here, so my role is to try to get more of them to stay here,” said Morgan, who was hired last spring as Maple Valley’s first economic development director in the city’s 20-year history. “We don’t want them to have to get on the roads and commute out because any time you have to commute out, you have the economic leakage that comes with that. They get to their job site and spend their money at the places they work instead (of Maple Valley).”
Fewer than 800 people both live and work in Maple Valley, according to a 2016 urban profile by the University of Washington Tacoma. This means more than 11,000 members of the Maple Valley workforce commute out of the city each day, and close to 20 percent of those individuals’ commutes last over one hour due to traffic congestion.
Morgan has a difficult task, considering some of Maple Valley’s largest employers — Tahoma School District, Fred Meyer, and JR Hayes Corporation — count fewer than 200 employees, combined. The bulk of Maple Valley’s remaining workforce is found in the city’s two retail pockets: a large cluster of older businesses in the north end of town, where State Route 18 skirts the city’s border, and the so-called Four Corners, a cross-town commercial hub in the south end, where Highway 169 bisects State Route 516. These two pockets are bordered by low-density residential areas, as well as protected areas such as parks and forested open space.
There is one area, however, that does have potential, according to Morgan. It is a 122-acre parcel within city limits that is owned by King County and nicknamed the “doughnut hole,” due to its shape on the city’s color-coded maps. It could be Maple Valley’s third commercial hub, and help stanch the outflow of residents who commute to other cities for work.
“The doughnut hole property is zoned as a regional learning technology center, which basically means it is employment land,” Morgan said. “That 122 acres is a big piece of property, so we are looking forward to working collaboratively with King County on finding the best use of that property. We see it as a definite job creation possibility.”
The property’s proximity to the newly completed Tahoma High School would be of great benefit to any company that would someday use the King County land. Not only is the high school the largest in the state, but it has several state-of-the-art technology labs, and a 600-seat performing arts center available to locals for meetings and events.
It’s easy to envision the doughnut hole site as a rural corporate campus, ideal to host a technology or life sciences company. But Morgan said he has very specific hopes for the property.
“We’ve identified outdoor recreation as one of our main industry clusters that we are looking at attracting because we have over 100 miles of biking trails in the Puget Sound region, many here in Maple Valley,” he said. “That is an industry that we are trying to put our arms around.”
Maple Valley does have much to offer outdoor recreation companies looking for a new headquarters or corporate campus. Equidistant from the waters of the Puget Sound and the rolling Cascade Mountains, and bordered by Covington, Kent, and Black Diamond, Maple Valley is possibly one of the last sleepy bedroom communities left in the region. Its esteemed Tahoma School District; close proximity to urban centers in Seattle and Bellevue; and a rich, recreational landscape that offers three lakes, two golf courses, and miles of trails — including the Green to Cedar Rivers Trail — make Maple Valley a desirable place to live.
“We’ve identified outdoor recreation as one of our main industry clusters that we are looking at attracting.”
Morgan also hopes to encourage more telework and home-based businesses to Maple Valley by drawing in co-working spaces like the popular WeWork spaces in Seattle and Bellevue, or something similar.
“WeWork is growing like gangbusters in Seattle and across the country,” Morgan said. “It would be a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity for us to create additional office space to get some companies here to be in an environment where they can collaborate with other professionals.”
With more jobs comes the demand for more housing, but Morgan said the city is ready for a population boom. In 2011, the city set a goal to add 2,382 housing units by the year 2031. Morgan expects the city will meet or exceed that number by the year 2021.
Maple Valley Community Development Manager Matt Torpey noted that relaxed building height restrictions have brought multifamily mixed residential developers to Maple Valley. Two buildings under construction today will add 350 multifamily homes to the market, and approximately 40,000 square feet of commercial space.
While Maple Valley is very much all about its single-family homes in low-density residential areas, Torpey said there are plenty of reasons apartment buildings will work for the small city.
“The issue that we hear the most is that there is nowhere for people’s kids to live (as adults and still be near their families),” Torpey said. “He or she can’t afford or doesn’t want a four-bedroom house, and they don’t want to go live in Kent, which is pretty much the closest place with apartments. Additionally, as (seniors) age, they want to live on the ground floor of a smaller apartment building so they can downsize and not have stairs.”
As these mixed-use multi-family homes reach completion, and Morgan finds a way to use the county’s doughnut hole property to bring more commercial businesses to town, one can’t help but wonder whether this is the beginning of the end for rural Puget Sound towns. Once urban sprawl arrives, there’s no going back. But Torpey sees it differently.
“Cities that are completely residential are having a really tough time staying solvent right now,” Torpey said. “Even though people pay property taxes, you only get about 15 percent of that at a city level, (the remaining 85 percent) goes to schools and the state,” Torpey said. “Residential just isn‘t enough to keep us going.”