Historically Rich and Poised for Growth

City of Lakewood, WA

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The city of Lakewood in Washington State is only twenty years old but has a historic past and hopeful future. Incorporated in 1996, Lakewood is well-situated near military bases and West Coast ports. The new city offers vast recreational opportunities and a growing economy.
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Mayor Don Anderson says that from an economic development perspective, “we’re open for business. We’re business-friendly.”

According to the US Census Bureau, Lakewood had an estimated population of 59,829 people in 2015. The median age of Lakewood residents is 36.6 while the average household income is $65,912. The city also has “approximately 3,400 businesses of which 1,100 are actual physical locations in Lakewood,” adds Economic Development Manager Becky Newton.

The Mayor cites several reasons why companies should set up or expand in the community. It has a strategic location on Interstate 5 and, “we don’t have a local business and occupation tax (B&O).” The B&O tax is Washington State’s primary business tax. Municipalities can opt out of charging companies local B&O taxes; state fees remain obligatory, however. Lakewood does not impose traffic impact fees on companies either.

In addition to having lower taxes, Lakewood city government is supportive of business, according to Newton. “Lakewood offers what we call wraparound services for businesses that help a company from startup,” she explains. “If they want to expand, we put a team around that business to help them stay here and expand and thrive. Lakewood also has some incentives, such as a multi-family tax exemption to encourage development … and the cost of land is relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the region.”

Then, there’s the issue of location. “Here in Puget Sound, we’re in close proximity to the Port of Tacoma, the Port of Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Given that we’re the gateway to Asia, there’s a huge demand for light industrial, manufacturing and logistics space [in the region]. Most of the space in and around the Seattle area has already been developed,” notes City Manager John Caulfield.

Lakewood offers access to several major roadways including I-5, SR-512 and US Route 99. The city government has made over $36 million in capital improvements over the past twelve years or so, much of it spent to enhance transportation corridors by improving traffic flow, safety and access. Pierce County, which includes Lakewood, has an excellent bus system, and the city is linked to a commuter rail line that goes into downtown Seattle. Lakewood is close to major transportation corridors but not part of the traffic-clogged Seattle core, making it easier for local firms to ship freight.

The city benefits from having two post-secondary schools – Pierce College Fort Steilacoom and Clover Park Technical College – and being near two military bases. The latter are Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), biggest joint base on the Pacific Coast and Camp Murray, headquarters for the Washington National Guard.

Lakewood has an “absolutely outstanding” relationship with JBLM, says Caulfield. This is a good thing, as tens of thousands of base workers, contractors and soldiers “live, work and shop” in Lakewood, notes the mayor.

“JBLM has literally thousands of people transitioning out of the military every year. Sixty percent of those highly skilled folks want to stay in this area when they transition out of active duty. So, there’s a skilled, educated workforce right next door,” continues Mayor Anderson.

Pierce County has had a reputation as something of a commuter community. People live here and commute north to Seattle or other places, and Lakewood officials are eager to change this situation by enhancing local business and employment opportunities.

“A number of years ago, the city council made some land-use changes. Coming out of the ground is what we define as the Woodbrook Industrial Business Park. There’s already one development down there with another one on the books, ready to come out of the ground hopefully in the very near future. Once that business park is filled out, the economic impact for not just Lakewood but our region could be upwards of $1 billion with 3,500 employees making very good family wages,” says Caulfield.

Local authorities also want to build up the central business district. There are plans to add a new library, perhaps connected with a community or senior’s centre and bring in new companies and residents.

Lakewood has a multicultural profile. Another major commercial retail sector called the international district has a significant Asian population, according to Newton. The district contains several businesses, such as grocery stores, that appeal to the Asian community.

Local government also wants to encourage business development in the Pacific Highway area. “We currently have three construction projects: a hotel, an expansion of a car dealership and a gun shop and indoor range that are in various stages of completion [in the area]. We’re working to keep that development rolling,” says Mayor Anderson.

The city of Lakewood grew out of a community originally known as The Prairie. The British set up a fur-trading post there called Fort Nisqually in 1833. In 1846, following a border treaty with the UK, The Prairie fell under American jurisdiction. Settlers began moving in, and in 1849, the US Army built Fort Steilacoom to protect them from attacks. The fort hosted a series of officers who later served in the Civil War, including Confederate General George Pickett and Union Generals George McClellan, Philip Sheridan and Ulysses S. Grant (who also served as a US president).

The Northern Pacific Railway reached Tacoma in late 1873, and the Lakewood area became more settled. Rich people began flocking to the community for leisure activities. For them, the Tacoma Country and Golf Club, first golf club west of the Mississippi River, was opened in 1894.

In 1917, the Fort Lewis military base was established, followed by McChord Field air base in 1938. The bases eventually merged, becoming JBLM.

In March 1995, people in the Lakewood area voted to incorporate as a city. The city was officially launched February 28, 1996. “While we’re a new city, there’s a lot of history interspersed around town,” says Mayor Anderson.

He points to Thornewood Castle as an example. The castle is a four-hundred-year-old English manor, purchased, dismantled and re-assembled in Lakewood by businessman Chester Thorne. Built between 1909 and 1911, Thornewood Castle is now a popular bed and breakfast location and wedding and film site (Oscar-winning movie There Will Be Blood was partly shot here).

Lakewold Gardens, meanwhile, is a local estate consisting of ten acres dotted with native plants, trees and flowers on Gravelly Lake. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Lakewood area also boasts roughly a dozen parks with a total of 540 acres and multiple lakes (as the city’s name implies) for swimming, water skiing, fishing and boating. The city features skateboarding facilities and a YMCA as well.

“There’s really a lot of natural beauty here in Lakewood. You can stay and play in Lakewood, and venture out to surrounding attractions such as Mount Rainier and Northwest Trek,” says Newton.

Such amenities are clearly a draw for visitors and families. For families, Lakewood also offers low housing prices and a low crime rate. The median value of a house or condo in Lakewood in 2013 was $207,602. By contrast, the median house/condo value in Washington State that year was $250,800.

As for law and order, Lakewood has Lakewood has a conscientious, award-winning police force focused on community safety and neighborhood engagement. The crime rate has been halved in Lakewood since the city was incorporated in 1996.

Lakewood community events include a Christmas tree lighting in early December, a “Jingle Bell Rock” five-kilometer run and SummerFEST, a celebration in Fort Steilacoom Park with vendors, a car show and more. Other events include a commemoration of Martin Luther King in January, to “celebrate diversity and all things great about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” says deputy mayor Jason Whalen.

Given the military presence in the area, it is no surprise Lakewood has played host to major Veterans Day remembrance ceremonies. The community will be taking part in special events in 2017 to mark the centennial of the founding of Fort Lewis. Lakewood also has an international film festival and a farmer’s market held on city hall property from late May through mid-September.

While officials encourage residential growth, they do not want Lakewood to lose its small-city feel. Caulfield cites Puget Sound regional council population projections, which predict Lakewood could “go to 65,000 or 70,000 or 72,000” over the next two to three decades.

Lakewood government’s big focus is boosting the city’s economic base, so residents do not need to commute elsewhere for work.

“We were built as a suburban bedroom community. The challenge is to create family wage jobs where people can live and work in the community. We can’t all sell each other coffee. We need to have more industrial, more value-added jobs here in the community. It’s not just economic development; it’s a focus on making us self-sustaining and contained, so people don’t have to get on I-5 or an hour long train ride to get to Seattle to work,” says Mayor Anderson.

June 28, 2017, 9:55 AM EDT

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