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Economic Sustainability is all about Place: Interview with Ellen Miller-Wolfe, City of Kirkland

Image 0 001 In 2007, O’Brien & Company was privileged to support you in the development of an Economic Sustainability Strategy for the City of Kirkland, located on Lake Washington in Western Washington. It was a pretty intensive effort, combining a somewhat traditional update of economic data with an assessment of sustainable economic development opportunities. Now that some time has passed, what were you hoping for, and did you achieve it?

MILLER-WOLFE: Primarily we were hoping to identify ways to develop and promote Kirkland as a green business destination – a place where people are applying the green concept to their products and services. Some of this was already going on, but the study showed that there were lots of ways businesses could be “greener” and enhance their business profile by doing so. We felt the green idea was a good match for our community culture – people are generally very supportive here of the environment and healthy, outdoor living. We also wanted our own community to understand that we actually have it all right here, that Kirkland isn’t just a place to come home to, but a place to visit, play, work, and live. A lot of very creative commercial activity is going on here, including a significant number of home businesses. We wanted to fill out Kirkland’s business profile more, with green businesses, and green jobs. And yes, I think the project was a very good starting point for this development. It gave us a map, so to speak.

 

I understand you’ve received calls from all over the country about the project..did you anticipate the level of interest your project received? Well, we knew that our approach to combine an economic assessment with a look at green business and green business practice was unusual. So we weren’t totally surprised that there were a number of communities watching this project as it went forward. We also participated in regional forums on green jobs and green business, including one with Governor Gregoire who spoke on green jobs legislation that had just passed. It was an exciting time, and a great time to be launching our green business effort. And you’re correct, we have fielded phone calls from communities interested in what we have done, from back East, as well as around here. I enjoy the mentoring role this project has placed us in. It’s very energizing.

Of project outcomes, which makes you feel most proud? One of the most significant points coming out of your study was the idea that sustainability is about place. It’s local. Your study recommended a buy local campaign and we’ve created Kirkland First. This is a web-based platform providing a local business directory; it also promotes awareness and participation in the City’s Green Business certification program. We could have posted all of our licensed businesses on the site but we didn’t want to dilute the effort, and we definitely didn’t want to offend a business that didn’t want to participate. So we work with our businesses to get their information on the site and ensure it is complete and correct.

That sounds like a challenge. It is. It’s probably taken a year to get to the point we feel this is ready to be promoted to consumers. We have roughly 400 businesses (of just over 3600 Kirkland businesses) now subscribing to the site. The other challenge is funding. We’d like to spin Kirkland First off to a private entity, but they need the capacity to keep it going. We’re working on it. There’s some interest in it going regional – but then that would defeat the premise of being local. We have been somewhat “non-conventional” in that we are interpreting local to include franchises that are located in Kirkland. Jobs are local.

Kirklandfirst But it’s worth it? Definitely. At one of the public information sessions we held for the project it became clear that people who live here had absolutely no idea that goods and services they were looking for were actually available here. The Kirkland First site is changing that. It’s saying “Look who’s here!” Not only that, many of our green, local businesses don’t know about each other, either. We recently had a business to business event on the first anniversary of setting up the Kirkland First website, and many of these local business owners met up for the first time. This kind of interaction strengthens the community. I mentioned earlier the high number of home-based businesses. And a surprising number – over 60% — of the businesses located in Kirkland are here because the CEO lives in Kirkland. And these CEOs can become ambassadors for Kirkland, pulling more businesses and more jobs into our community. It’s back to the importance of place again. These individuals like the quality of life in Kirkland, so they live here and start their businesses here.

What else are you doing besides Kirkland First? We’ve been running a very popular seminar series for local businesses called “Weathering the Storm” – focused in part on how to get through this downturn by greening their businesses. We’ve brought in experts to talk about things businesses can do to save on operational costs, and how they can creatively finance these improvements.

The biggest commercial development in Kirkland currently is Park Place; this redevelopment and expansion in the City’s downtown commercial district is expected to provide an important economic boost for our community. What may be especially significant to your readers is the project’s goals to achieve LEED certification, as well as provide other public benefits, such as walkable connectivity with adjacent areas and attractive open spaces. We’ve been incentivizing green building with expedited review for LEED and Built Green certification projects as well as for projects using Low Impact Development techniques where they are not required. (We are in the process of expanding this benefit from just single-family permits to include multi-family and commercial projects.) Kirkland’s Green Building Program offers free green building consultations; we have 5 LEED AP’s on Staff, and the Program's Lead is a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor (CSBA) so we are able to provide quality technical information. We are also developing a Green Code for the City that should be completed by June 2011.

In addition we are working with a number of Cities in the region including the C-7 New Energy Partnership on issues such as climate change, electric vehicle technology, greening our fleets. Within the City, our interdepartmental green team has really evolved. Every department has sustainability initiatives going on.

Any plans to revisit or update the Strategy? Not at this point. Although this interview makes me think I should revisit your report to see what we haven’t yet applied.

Board P1010003 Any advice for your peers who might be reading this? I’d suggest a similar approach. An assessment and strategic planning process that includes community dialogue is a great starting point. The analysis and process provided us with enough data to confidently act, as well as some directions to move in. It was also fairly comprehensive in its scope, so it tied together multiple City departments, which has benefited us as we’ve moved forward.

Ellen Miller-Wolfe is Economic Development Manager for the City of Kirkland. The interview was conducted by Kathleen O'Brien, Editor of Building Capacity Blog, and President of O'Brien & Company, sustainability consultant. The Economic Sustainability Accessment and Strategy was developed by O'Brien & Company with E.D. Hovee & Company, economic and development services consultant.

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