This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of 425 Business.
With a new vision and a key downtown anchor in McMenamins, Bothell has revitalization on the brain.
Nine years ago, the city of Bothell recruited local community, education, and business leaders to create a plan to shape its future.
In 2006, the vision emerged: a pedestrian-friendly downtown where a vibrant Main Street is not overshadowed by the nearby highway. A city where urban housing and small businesses benefit one another.
The price to realize such a vision: $150 million. Funding available: $0.
“At the time, we hadn’t identified any funds, but we had a commitment and fiscal discipline,” said Bob Stowe, Bothell city manager.
That same year, the city established a policy that required all its one-time revenues to be put into a fund. Money from that fund would be used only for one-time expenses, such as infrastructure and facility improvements.
That policy change has made all the difference for Bothell. Money from the fund has significantly shaped the revitalized downtown core.
“The oxygen of development is capital, and without it, nothing can happen,” Stowe said.
One of the city’s first tasks was to purchase 25 acres of key downtown property. Seven of those acres were set aside for parks and infrastructure. The rest was to be sold back to one developer.
It was a risky move that didn’t pan out as planned. The recession hit, and selling to a single developer was no longer an option, Stowe said.
The city shifted gears. It divided the property and went about installing the necessary infrastructure and conducting environmental cleanups of the properties.
To date, $50 million has been spent on buying property, and another $100 million has been spent on infrastructure. Seven million dollars was spent on scrubbing the land of pollution left behind by gas stations and dry cleaners.
“The environmental plume would be almost impossible for a developer to pay to have removed, so Bothell uses its ability to apply for state money and grants to clean the property, then it sells it back to developers,” Stowe said.
One of the city’s main objectives was to save the Anderson School, which was built in 1931. To do that, the city reached out to McMenamins, an Oregon company that specializes in historic hotels, breweries, music venues, movie theaters, and pubs.
“I always thought McMenamins would be a great addition and would do a great job attracting others,” Stowe said.
The city worked with McMenamins to determine a price that reflected fair market value and recognized the dollar value of public benefit.
“We aren’t just selling property,” Stowe said. “There is a very select type of developer we choose. They have to be committed to development consistent with our community’s vision.”
McMenamins bought the Anderson School for $2.4 million, though it was valued at $7 million. To earn the $4.6 million discount, McMenamins agreed to allow Bothell residents to use its pool for free.
Until last year, the city operated a public pool at a loss of $250,000 a year, Stowe said. That’s a tangible dollar value that McMenamins — which agreed to purchase the school in 2010 — now covers. In addition, McMenamins is providing a public meeting room to the city. The company also is prohibited from tearing down the building or removing any of its facade.
The new development in Bothell has sent longtime business owner Leigh Henderson “over the moon.” The owner of Alexa’s Cafe and Catering on Main Street for the last 25 years, Henderson says doing business in Bothell used to mean going out and getting your own business.
“For the majority of the time, Bothell didn’t evolve at all,” she said. “It’s been pretty sleepy.”
Henderson is one of the business owners who have been sitting on planning committees for the past several years. She already is seeing the revitalization’s positive effects on her business. If it’s helping her business, it’s helping others. “Main Street is the heart and soul of this community,” she said.
While the downtown revitalization is kickstarting new business investment, the University of Washington Bothell continues to attract more students. The branch campus situated downtown has about 5,000 students; Cascadia College, which shares space on the UW Bothell campus, hosts another 1,500.
One of UW Bothell’s focuses is on science, technology, engineering, and math — STEM — which fits in well with the city’s high-tech businesses.
The city’s thriving medical-device manufacturing industry, led by Philips Healthcare, helps the university attract top-rate faculty, many of whom work on research and patents for local businesses. Some students hold internships with area companies, and those internships often lead to jobs once students graduate.
This reciprocal relationship started about five years ago when the university opened its STEM school, says Susan Jeffords, vice chancellor of academic affairs at UW Bothell. The school also provides continuing education for companies throughout the Eastside.
Vertafore, a Bothell-based developer of insurance technology, touts Bothell’s UW campus as a benefit for the business community. The company, like many businesses on the Eastside, faces a competitive recruiting environment. Ginny Eagle, Vertafore’s human resources director, notes that the “off the charts” economic development taking place in Bothell helps companies bring employees to town, and the UW campus is a huge draw.
“We have high potential talent at Vertafore,” said Eagle. “It’s important to our staff that they are able to keep their skills up.”
Tara Beeby, a marketing manager at Vertafore, is enrolled in the college’s Mini MBA leadership series. “Having such a huge UW extension with growth plans does make this area more competitive for attracting employees,” she said.
Extended education opportunities are important for both companies and employees, Beeby said. “As an employee, it makes me feel good because I know the company is willing to invest in me.
“While you don’t think of Bothell as a college town, you will begin to see that,” she said. “The campus is beautiful with grassy areas and walking paths, picnic tables, and lounge places.”
For Henderson, Bothell’s revitalization has been a long
“I’m optimistic about things to come,” she said. “I live three blocks from McMenamins. I can walk there. I’ve gone years without anything to do around here. Now we can say, ‘Let’s go eat!’”