From new flowerpots in the downtown to a new route from town to Rainier View Road, Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas, just more than half a year into his first term in office, says many improvements to Monroe are in the works.
There’s no arguing that Monroe’s downtown has seen better days. Many businesses stand empty, signage is haphazard, the large sidewalk flowerpots are pitted and aging, and it looks a bit rundown.
But Mayor Thomas and Una Wirkebau-Hartt, Director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, have some plans to help the district improve.
The flowerpots, installed before the year 2000, will make way for new ones this fall, said Thomas.
“The reason we are waiting for the fall is we don’t want to uproot the plants that are in there right now,” said Thomas. “We are also looking at perhaps replacing the garbage cans or treating them with something different this year, and replacing the benches in the downtown maybe next year.”
The task of filling the empty buildings in the downtown with new businesses is a bit more difficult. But Thomas and Wirkebau-Hartt are discussing ways to accomplish that, including assembling information on each building and helping connect potential tenants with vacant spaces, and also reaching out to the owners of buildings to discuss strategies to improve the district.
As for signage, the city created a new sign ordinance last year, but due to a lack of funding, there hasn’t been sufficient staff to enforce the code. But that is soon to change, said Thomas, who said the new code will be enforced in coming months.
Also, work on Fremont Street in front of the school district building is nearly complete, and includes attractive wide sidewalks, trees and more. And work on Hill and Butler Streets will also result in more attractive street-scapes.
“It’s the same grant as Fremont Street,” said Thomas. “It’s part of reinventing the downtown. We’re putting in porous concrete that will facilitate storm water, and we are improving the aesthetics.”
Chain Lake Road Roundabout
The contracting firm building a new roundabout at the intersection of Chain Lake Road and North Kelsey Street is in a hurry to get as much possible done before the start of the Evergreen State Fair, meaning the expedited project could be finished in a matter of weeks.
“We are hoping to have it finished by September,” said Thomas.
191st Street extension
Currently Galaxy Way and 191st Street end within a few yards of each other, with 191st extending to the edge of the bluff above Galaxy Theater.
Eventually, the city would like to extend the two streets to connect, and thereby create a second route into the populous neighborhoods along Rainier View Road.
“We are working with our state legislators, including Kirk Pearson, to in turn work with the DOT to have connecting that road as part of our transportation plan for the next 10 years,” said Thomas.
One challenge is that the streets would intersect in the area set aside for the U.S. 2 bypass, a plan to send U.S. 2 around Monroe to the north. The plan has been languishing for decades, but remains a goal for the city.
Connecting Galaxy Way and 191st Street wouldn’t interfere with the planned bypass, but would require engineering to take the eventual bypass into consideration.
It’s worth doing, said Thomas.
“There’s only one way in and out of the west side of Chain Lake Road right now and that’s Rainier Drive,” he said. “There was a fire at the first house on the south side of Rainier View a few years ago, and people who lived in that neighborhood were not able to leave or couldn’t get in for two to three hours. Extending 191st would provide a secondary way in and out, and improve circulation. If you live in Trombley and want to go to the theater, you won’t have go go all they way out and back in again.”
Sales tax could pay for more improvements
Ballots are soon to go in the mail to Monroe voters to see if they are interested in adding a .2 percent increase to the sales tax. Currently the tax rate is 8.7 percent, with 6.5 percent going to the state, 2.1 percent going to the county, and 1 percent going to the city.
The tax would go up to 8.9 percent, meaning that people shopping in Monroe would pay an additional $2 on a $1,000 purchase, from $87 to $89.
If it passes, the money will go to help Monroe fix streets.
It could go a long way toward keeping Monroe adequately funded to maintain roads, said Thomas.
“We have an estimated need of about $1 million a year to maintain what we have,” he said. “This increase would generate about $600,000 a year, and in future years we anticipate that would go up as our retail base begins to expand.”
Other improvements postponed
Other improvements and investments the city had planned had to be postponed due to a large financial blow associated with the arrival of Housing Hope’s new 47-unit development on West Main, to be complete this time next year.
The city, concerned about a lack of affordable housing, passed an ordinance long ago that any developer bringing in low income housing would not have to pay impact mitigation fees. However, since those fees must be paid by someone, the city agreed to pay them.
Impact mitigation fees are charged to developers whose projects will increase the population of the city. Because of the associated increase in use of parks, schools and streets, the developer has to pay to help the city and school district ramp up.
Typically, low income housing has come in the form of a few duplexes here and there, or at the most a small development of 10 or so units. The city just took from the general fund what the developer would have paid and put the money in the appropriate account, whether it be sent to the school district or put in the transportation or parks funds.
But the city wasn’t prepared for such a large development, said Thomas.
“It turned out to be $450,000 in impact fees, in round numbers, and that was not budgeted for 2014,” he said.
The city in May did a budget amendment, deciding not to replace an economic development manager, a park maintenance employee or a director in the planning department. With a decision to defer way-finding signs in the downtown, an amenity suggested to enhance tourism, that filled about $300,000 of the gap. The rest was taken from a city fund for one-time expenses.
No wakeboard park this year
A group of developers planning a cable-towed wakeboard park in Lake Tye had planned to open this summer, but have put their plans on hold, pending completion of permit applications. The company is also looking for investors, said Thomas.
Pastors and manufacturers
Another new innovation in town is the gathering of various communities to discuss ways to improve Monroe, the mayor mentioned.
Recently, the mayor met with town pastors.
“I spoke with them about how we could partner with the faith community here in town when there are community clean up events and community service events,” he said. “They are part of the fabric of the community. They do a lot of volunteer things, supporting Housing Hope, Take the Next Step and the food bank. I just want to make certain there is an open line of communication.”
Another group to begin holding meetings is the town’s many manufacturers.
“That’s an exciting and positive initiative,” said Thomas. “We’re working with the Chamber of Commerce and the community college. We want to pull together an association of manufacturers to help us understand how to better deliver services through the city, the chamber and the college for business development.”
Part of the goal is to help develop the pool of skilled labor in Monroe, so that people who live in the town can have access to good jobs.
“We want to make certain we are supporting our family wage jobs,” said Thomas.