Kent growth chief tackles challenges

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

A year after Kent City Council changed the position of economic development coordinator from a consulting position to a staff post, city officials say they have no regrets.

Economic Development Coordinator Michael Weddle has been on the job about seven months. And, although Kent's level of commercial and industrial growth hasn't risen dramatically, city officials are looking forward to more growth and better planning in the future.

"I think it's worked out quite nicely so far," said Community Development Director Louis Zunguze. "Given the interrelationship between economic development and land use, bringing these two activities under one department is clearly a perfect blend."

Last year, council decided to make economic development a staff position in Zunguze's office. The job had been filled by Jack Crews, who worked as a consultant in the city manager's office.

After months of working to draft a job description for the newly created post, Weddle was hired in September. Crews left the office in June when his contract expired.

Since then, Weddle has been keeping himself busy working on the West River Neighborhood's generalized land use guide _ something he said should have been drafted before any property was purchased or marketed there _ meeting with potential developers, and developing a relationship with business owners and merchants.

"I knew it was going to have to evolve," Weddle said. "It's been a challenge starting the department from scratch, learning the background, working with the new council members and the mayor."

Zunguze acknowledged that the transition wasn't easy.

"He didn't have time to sit back and learn," he said. "He had to hit the ground running. Now, things are beginning to pick up. We've not lost ground."

Councilman Wayne Wilson said now that Weddle is established in his position, the city can enjoy consistency in economic development, something he said the city has always lacked.

"Hopefully, until Mr. Weddle decides to retire, we won't have that gap," he said. "We might have a developer who comes back and is ready to build and can say, 'I think I'll look up that guy in Kent I talked to.' The same person can be there to deal with them."

Now that Weddle is established in his job and is fielding calls regularly from business people who are interested in coming to Kent or expanding, he and Zunguze are pondering the next step _ a strategic economic development plan for the city.

The plan, Weddle explained, would take into account all of Kent's strengths and weaknesses so city officials can plan accordingly. For example, if an industrial park is envisioned in a particular area, the city may want to concentrate on installing more sewer and water lines in that part of the city. It would also come up with a plan for Kent's few remaining undeveloped parcels.

"It does give us an opportunity to be proactive," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to say, 'We see the city growing in this fashion, with these types of industries and companies."

The plan would be drafted by the community development staff and presented to council for its consideration.

"It would articulate a vision for the city in terms of economic development," Zunguze said, adding the future is unlikely to bring radically different types of businesses to Kent. "The kind of business we're likely to encourage will be defined by the kind of businesses we already have."

The plan would also consider how the city's current assets, like schools, infrastructure, and parks relate to the kinds of growth Kent can expect.

"One thing I've stressed to (Weddle) is that everything we do in the city translates to promoting economic development and what we can do from a quality of life perspective," Zunguze said, adding that parks and a wide range of housing types are important because some companies may not want to move to a town which doesn't have those resources available.

Retaining business is as critical as attracting it, Zunguze explained.

"Our greatest ambassador is how we treat our current businesses," he said. "Business people talk. When they share their experiences, we hope they will speak well of the city of Kent."

Wilson said although economic development doesn't happen overnight, eventually, he hopes there will eventually be enough growth in Kent to avert a projected budget crunch.

"If Mr. Weddle does his job correctly, it's going to bring in more money to our general fund," he said.

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