Plans for town center in Covington begin to take shape

It may be years before the town center vision in Covington becomes reality but officials hope the work put in now will pay off when development begins.

It may be years before the town center vision in Covington becomes reality but officials hope the work put in now will pay off when development begins.

Derek Matheson, Covington’s city manager, said that the city is focused on a handful of elements in the coming year that will lay the foundation for the town center project which is envisioned for the current site of Covington Elementary and ideally the 7 acre property next door owned by Ashton Development.

A town center feasibility study is planned, a request for qualifications was put out to find a partner to develop the town center and city staff continue to move forward with the effort to bring higher education to the city.

Matheson said the City Council approved Burke Consulting to do the the feasibility study at its meeting Nov. 26 after issuing the RFP in August. Four responses were received.

“The study’s purpose is to determine the town center’s concept ability to generate revenue and jobs and to determine the associated infrastructure costs,” Matheson said. “We’ll use that information to apply for federal and state grants that make it possible to be a good public half of a public-private partnership.”

A partnership of this kind came up at the end of 2012 as city staff were discussing the town center project. Matheson told the Reporter in September that the success the city community development staff had in working on the Hawk subarea plan could be replicated with town center. By doing a considerable amount of the planning work up front, in theory when the Kent School District is ready to sell the Covington Elementary property, all the elements will be in place to begin moving forward to make the town center vision a reality.

A request for qualifications for a potential private partner went out in September, Matheson said, with two proposals submitted. The first round of interviews of the firms were done in October, references are being checked and another round of interviews are planned for this month.

“Our hope is that we have a development partner waiting in the wings who would exercise our right of first offer to buy the Covington Elementary School property once a new school is in place then work with the city to construct private development and public infrastructure,” Matheson said. “Once we identify a partner and the council approves that partner, we’ll need to negotiate some kind of memorandum of understanding where the city grants them the ability to exercise the right of first offer and we agree to work together to try to make a development project pencil out.”

In the middle of all that, city staff is also working toward bringing higher education options to Covington. In early September a group of city staff and representatives from local technical and community colleges visited the University Center of North Puget Sound located in Everett. Started more than a decade ago, the University Center partners with eight public and private universities to offer programs in an area which was previously underserved.

Bringing colleges to Covington is an idea which first came up in 2010. The city worked with MultiCare to develop a plan to bring higher education here with health care as the hook. But that concept has broadened considerably since then.

Since the visit to UC Everett, Matheson said, city staff members have worked on two different tracks.

“One is building relationships with the state’s six four-year public universities,” Matheson said. “We’ve met with Western and WSU. Probably next on our list will be Central and Eastern and we want to meet with UW and Evergreen State College as well. After that we want to talk to some of the private universities and some of the for profit universities.”

Through those meetings and understanding the university center model, Matheson said, it is clear the next step is to develop a needs assessment.

“As the name suggests it evaluates the community and surrounding areas for what higher education programs are lacking and what programs would be a good fit for us,” Matheson said. “That leads into the second track which we’re meeting with our own legislators (of the 47th District), legislators on the house and senate budget committees and the house and senate higher ed committees to tell them more about Covington and to let them know our legislative agenda calls for a needs assessment in 2014.”

Additionally, Matheson said, city officials met with the Washington Student Achievement Council that oversees higher education and would prepare the needs assessment.

Matheson said he is not sure if the state Legislature will fund the city’s request to pay for the needs assessment, which is estimated to cost between $80,000 and $125,000.

“It’s safe to say that it’s a heavy lift in 2014 because it’s a non-budget year and because we have our $13.2 million transportation request for SR 516,” Matheson said. “It’s hard for one community to receive more than one large request.”

But, it is critical enough that the city’s lobbyists will work on it during the 60 day session which starts in mid-January.

The assessment would evaluate what the right format would be for Covington whether that’s the university center concept as well as which school would be the best partner.

“In our conversations with legislators, it’s really gotten their attention when we’ve pointed out that in King County close to 50 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher,” Matheson said. “In Covington, it’s closer to 25 percent which shows that our residents need better access to higher education opportunities. We still have a median income of close to $90,000 a year which means we have a lot of residents who are in professional jobs without bachelor’s degrees.”

The response from legislators, Matheson said, indicates it is worth looking into but it might be tricky in the upcoming session.

“They’re supportive of decentralizing higher ed, they’re supportive of helping us pursue our higher education vision but acknowledge our request is a heavy lift in a non-budget year,” Matheson said.

Still, Covington staff members and elected officials know now the potential impact bringing higher education institutions could have on the city, particularly its town center.

“We have a couple of different goals here, the primary goal is higher education opportunities for our residents,” Matheson said. “But our secondary goal is to build our town center and use higher education to build and transform that area as it has been used to build and transform other areas like Tacoma – UW Tacoma that spurred the revitalization of a very challenged Pacific Avenue.”

A vision for the town center may not become reality for years and, as Matheson pointed out, will be a development which will take place over several years. But the work now could ensure that it moves forward when the time comes smoothly.

Not only that, but, the work on the various elements of town center is not the only major long-term planning project going on.

“It’s pretty impressive, too, because we’re doing it at the same time as the whole Hawk area subarea plan,” Matheson said. “So, we’re developing a pedestrian oriented center at the same time we’re developing an auto friendly mixed use retail district.”