Diane Kamionka, executive director of NW Innovation Resource Center, shares an example of a makerspace, above. At left is the Glacier Peak Institute.

Arlington-Darrington eyes win, millions in ‘America’s Best Communities’ competition April 19

ARLINGTON – Two years ago, Arlington and Darrington entered the “America’s Best Communities” competition still reeling from the impacts of the Oso slide that claimed 43 lives, and figuring out how to rebuild in the face of adversity.

With the winners to be announced Wednesday from the “elite 8” at the ABC Grand Prize Event in Denver, Arlington and Darrington will tell their story to judges and competitors one last time.

In their 15-minute pitch, a delegation led by Arlington’s Bob Drewel, former WSU North Puget Sound of Everett interim chancellor, and the respective mayors, will recap economic revitalization achievements over months that took root, fill in any missing gaps, and give a final report on progress.

At stake are cash rewards to the top three winners – a first prize of $3 million, and second and third prizes of $2 million and $1 million, respectively, for exceptional ideas that transform economic vision into reality.

The other finalists are Tualatin, Ore.; Valley County/Meadows Valley, Idaho; Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; Chisago Lakes Area, Minn.; Madison, Ind.; Huntington, W.V.; and Statesboro, Ga.

ABC sponsors gave each of the finalists $100,000 to further carry out their strategies.

“By any measure, the Arlington-Darrington team has met and exceeded every goal,” Drewel said. The communities opened a road, created a school, brought higher education to the community, built a park, saw new businesses open with new jobs created, and reported an 8 percent increase in Arlington downtown holiday shopping revenue, the latter thanks to initiatives tied to the ABC competition.

In sum, Drewel said, “We leveraged the $100,000 from ABC to attract an additional $91 million in funding, and along the way wrote a new chapter in the story of our community.”

In some respects, the Arlington-Darrington team was a beneficiary of good timing.

When the cities applied to enter the ABC competition, the cities had just hired a consultant to develop the North Stillaguamish Economic Redevelopment Plan, a “living, long-term document.” It would serve as a blueprint for future infrastructure, industries and employment, community and workforce development, rural innovation and other goals, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert said. The plan addressed high-level priorities such as the Arlington-Marysville Manufacturing Industrial Center.

The goals in that document helped shape the 11 key ABC projects contained in the joint cities’ Community Revitalization Plan, submitted to the ABC competition on March 29.

Those project are revitalizing downtown economies and breathing new life into Arlington and Darrington, Tolbert said. With the $100,000 from ABC, the cities pushed through 11 projects in 11 months, covering more areas than the plans submitted by the seven other ABC finalists.

Local projects include downtown free wi-fi hot spots, retail-focused consulting for businesses, a proposed makerspace, mobile tool library, establishment of city youth councils, Glacier Peak Institute, pocket parks, beautification campaigns, rural tourism and recreation promotion, and a remembrance bike ride to memorialize those killed in the Oso slide.

Even if the Arlington-Darrington team doesn’t win prize money, community leaders believe they have a solid economic plan for the Stillaguamish Valley.

“I feel like Arlington and Darrington have already won,” Tolbert said. “Where we are now (in our plan) is three to five years ahead of where we would have been without the competition.”

However, the prize money would help to significantly fund further economic revitalization and address socioeconomic challenges in the aftermath of the slide.

In Denver, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin plans to talk about two of the 11 projects that proved their value as recently as last week, when concerns arose about an unstable hillside – not far from the Oso slide – that closed Highway 530 for five days and issued a voluntary evacuation of nearby homes. Rankin reported that the Darrington CoWork Space opened and saw its high-speed internet facility used by workers cut off from their jobs and employment centers to the west.

He also plans to talk about the Glacier Peak Institute in Darrington. The facility was funded in direct response to the deadly slide, and works with Darrington School District to provide students with STEM programs and hands-on science experiences, including collection and analysis of field data, and building monitoring equipment to measure things like slope movement. Last week’s cracks in the unstable slope are a perfect, real-time classroom topic.

In her presentation, Tolbert plans to talk about industries, employment, downtown beautification and youth councils.

Beautification projects in both downtowns helped transform empty storefronts into new businesses and employment. The goal goes deeper though, Tolbert said, to include retail recruitment, great customer service through the planning and building department, and assisting with access to small-business resources.

Tolbert is especially proud of the youth councils as a permanent way to give young people who will one day inherit their communities the leadership, skills, resources and knowledge they need to address youth and community issues. City leaders hope youth council members gain a stronger sense of community, and a confidence that their voice is heard in government.

The Arlington-Darrington team came away with a few important lessons during the ABC competition.

Stick to a long-term strategy, Drewel said. “After the slide, we created a regional economic redevelopment plan that remained a road map for our ABC plan,” he said. “The plan helped us adaptably manage roadblocks and take advantage of new opportunities, while focusing on the long-term vision.”

Drewel added that it’s essential for parties to understand their role in a regional economy, and play to strengths that put Arlington and Darrington in the best position to leverage opportunities to attract more investment.

Tolbert added another lesson learned, that partnerships are essential. The ABC competition drew citizens, government, elected officials, churches, public agencies, nonprofits, service clubs, businesses and education leaders who wanted to help complete the 11 tasks in the revitalization plan.

There was one message that resonated the most with Tolbert. “Nothing is more powerful than a community working together,” she said.

“We learned that three years ago in the Oso mudslide,” she said. “That’s the strength and the resiliency that I think citizens showed through this process, and why we’ve been so successful.”

As progress was made on the projects, the mayor said it was impressive to see how the groups developed a sense of responsibility to one another and to the bigger picture, and that inspired yet more momentum and passion.

Arlington Recreation manager Sarah Lopez said the ABC campaign and its many projects brought new people into the cities’ efforts toward community engagement, and that bodes well for Arlington’s and Darringon’s futures.

Tolbert said the challenge moving forward will be to keep the community engaged at the same level, with the same passion, enthusiasm and initiative.

“Through the ABC competition that followed after the landslide, we’re going to show the rest of the country just how special our communities are,” Tolbert said.

See the results live

You can watch the winners announced online live stream at 4 p.m at www.facebook.com/mericasBestCommunities/

Residents can also visit the Arlington City Council chambers at 238 N. Olympic Ave., which will also carry the video feed.


Here are the 11 completed projects and others in the works that highlight the local team’s strategy for economic revitalization:

* Wi-Fi hotspots, Established two public wi-fi hot spots in high-traffic downtown Arlington and Old School Park in Darrington, and are assessing need to bring more broadband services to the Stillaguamish Valley.

* Retail-focused consulting for businesses: The local Chamber of Commerce and Washington’s Small Business Development Centers helped change the culture of business in Arlington and Darrington through seminars and advising. The city then hired a merchandising consultant to work with storefront businesses on creative store layout, and ways to bring more customers in the door to encourage sales.

* Makerspace: A makerspace is a collaborative, community workspace where people with shared interests – especially in computing or technology – can access tools, resources and knowledge from others in order to make, repair, invent or create anything they put their mind to doing. With a business plan in hand, Arlington is engaging local businesses, entrepreneurs and the public to address resources and funding.

* Mobile Tool Library: The tool library, created and operated by downtown business owners, provides access to tools and machinery for businesses to complete minor maintenance projects. The goal is to encourage property maintenance, entrepreneurial spirit in the Stilly Valley, and improve curb appeal and increase business sales. Lending privileges have been extended to community groups, to.

* Youth Councils: Each city established a Youth Council to focus on issues of interest to youth leaders, give young people a voice in community planning, and instill a sense of investment in their community. From working with the Boys & Girls Club to outfit the new teen center and coordinating a street art public mural contest, to participating in community projects, the youth councils keep busy.

* Glacier Peak Institute: Founded in Darrington in direct response to the Oso mudslide, the Institute’s mission is to enhance opportunities for young people to engage in environmental risk assessment and restoration efforts, monitor and restore ecological health of the Stilly Valley, and encourage them to see the Stilly Valley as a place where they can grow professionally. GPI is also collaborating with middle school teachers on STEM programs tied to natural resources.

* Pocket and Pop-Up Parks: – Downtown Arlington and Darrington created small public spaces to encourage a more vibrant downtown economy and further add to curb appeal. Arlington has chosen a site, and is seeking funds open it. Darrington completed a design for its pocket park, and broke ground on the park in February. Planting will start this spring.

* Beautification Campaign: The completed campaign created a public-private partnership to invest in small improvements to main street properties, with the goal to improve the community’s aesthetic quality to stimulate economic growth, and enhance curb appeal to attract new business. To better manage ABC projects, Arlington delayed the work to coincide with merchandising consulting and tool library projects.

* Outdoor Adventure Recreation Plan: – The plan was completed in partnership with and resources from Snohomish County Parks, Tourism and Recreation departments. The intent is to improve and market local recreation assets and tourism opportunity, and increase economic benefits of tourism. The product is a physical and online GPS map with various points of interest, trailheads, campgrounds, restaurants, historical information, and other features that make planning for a trip to the Stillaguamish Valley easy.

* Rural Tourism Studios: This project was completed with the idea to build a common vision for the future of the region’s sustainable tourism economy, and improve and market local recreation assets and tourism opportunities.

* Tourism social media blitz: The blitz used a cross-media campaign to focus on publicizing recreational opportunities and sustainable tourism in the Stillaguamish Valley through social media and other platforms. Community leaders hope to continue the campaign in a more measured way over time, through their aptly named, “Stilly Valley Spirit.”

* Oso Ride to Remember Bike Ride: -Arlington and Darrington commemorated the 3rd anniversary of the Oso landslide on March 19, 2017 through the Oso Ride to Remember Bike Ride. The event served not only as a somber memorial to lives lost in the slide, but also honored the communities’ resiliency and connections, as well as successes achieved through the ABC competition and revitalization efforts.

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