Back in the 1920s and ‘30s – in the midst of what we may soon be calling the previous Great Depression – Kent, Washington, was known as the Lettuce Capital of the World. In 1934, this modest farm town of 2300 held a lettuce festival – complete with lettuce-themed floats, a lettuce queen and her court, and a much-ballyhooed highlight – “the world’s largest salad.” Some 15,000 visitors showed up. Five thousand of them ate the salad.
Blessed with a mild maritime climate, situated on a rail line in the fertile and well-watered Green River Valley, and located in close proximity to the port cities of Seattle and Tacoma (which also provided access to more distant markets), it’s no wonder Kent became a national horn of plenty.
A decade later, all of the Japanese-American farmers who had been farming in the Green River Valley had been forced into incarceration camps during World War II. The Puget Sound region was poised for a post-war economic boom and the commercial real estate market’s appetite for “location, location, location,” was Kent’s undoing as an agricultural powerhouse. Both of its big-city neighbors were becoming major portals for Pacific Rim trade, and the farmland surrounding little Kent was cheap, flat, and nearby. Productive fields increasingly gave way to warehouses and factories.
And lettuce, incidentally, had become a slang term for money.
By the beginning of 2020, what now is commonly called the Kent Valley has become one of the largest industrial concentrations on the west coast of North America, home to more than 10,000 businesses generating some $6.7 billion in revenue. That’s a lot of lettuce.
Kent has become a hub of global aero- and outer-space companies (Boeing, Blue Origin), heavy industry (Paccar, Flow Industries), food production (Starbucks, Oberto, Continental Mills) and shipping services, including a massive, 800,000 square-foot distribution center for Amazon.
Kent’s story, while somewhat super-sized, is not entirely unfamiliar. All across America, other towns that started out as agrarian communities have experienced similar transformations, adapting over time to the demands and opportunities of the industrial age and then again, with savvy and investment, to high-tech.
But for all of the clever people out there who were making all of that money, nobody was prepared for the unanticipated havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked upon not just our economy, but our entire way of life, in just the past couple of months.
Kent’s current efforts to grapple with the precipitous meltdown provide a view in microcosm of what is happening in so many communities across the United States right now.
It’s enough to keep folks in the economic development sector up at night. And in Kent, Bill Ellis is the fellow who is losing sleep.
Ellis had received his Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Cornell University in 2009, then worked in Oregon for three years to help establish that state’s Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network.
Ellis was hired by the City of Kent in 2014. Now serving as the city’s Chief Economic Development Officer, the fast-talking, deep-thinking planner concedes that recently he’s been waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about his work with “a grim understanding that all of our existing problems are now exacerbated and there will be a cratering of public sector revenues.”
Some of the typical responsibilities of his job, such as marketing the city’s surplus properties, have been put on hold for now. Real estate developers, Ellis notes, are waiting to find out if economic conditions are “going to be cataclysmic or just very bad.”
“Sometimes the best option you have is to do nothing. That’s really frustrating and I second-guess it all the time, but I think it’s a ‘patience is a virtue’ kind of thing.”
The pandemic has revealed to a wider public the sorts of issues that development professionals grapple with all the time.
“’Woe is us’… has always been the groan and cry” of his economic development colleagues in Washington State, Ellis says. They had regarded the state’s toolkit for providing revolving loan funds and incentive packages to be insufficient, long before COVID-19 made its debut as a global scourge.
But since the appearance of the pandemic in the United States, which was first confirmed in Washington State on January 25, Washington Governor Jay Inslee had moved to repurpose his strategic reserve fund of five millions dollars toward small business granting. It was a nice gesture, but the need was hugely disproportionate to the resources, and before funding could be made available even on a limited basis, precious time was consumed in developing the criteria for micro-granting. Many small business owners don’t have enough cushion to allow for the time it takes to activate these granting programs at state and federal levels.
While Inslee issued his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” directive on March 23, institutions in the City of Kent had already begun to shut down. An elementary school and a high school in the Kent School District were closed temporarily on March 2 when it was learned that a family with members at both of those schools had come down with flu-like symptoms and were waiting to be tested for COVID-19. By March 12, the Kent School District and Kent Library had decided to close. By March 17, the City of Kent had locked up its buildings.
For the moment, Ellis is working online and over the phone, devoting much of his energy to creating a recovery effort for the Kent businesses that will be able to survive this initial shut-down. He’s been talking about the influx of community development block grants and working in partnership with the local office of the Green River College Small Business Center, which offers no-cost advising to local businesses, and with the Kent Downtown Partnership (KDP).
KDP executive director Gaila Gutierrez assumed her position less than a year ago, coming from another economic development office in a smaller city. Revitalizing historic downtowns is a passion of hers, and she’s familiar with the challenges that towns face in trying to do that.
“A lot of these main streets have been forgotten due to traffic diversions and urban sprawl,” Gutierrez says.
Additionally, in Kent’s case, a transit-oriented retail development was built just a few blocks away a little over a decade ago. Styled as an urban village with a multiplex theatre and national brand retailers, it lured shoppers away from Kent’s original downtown, which already had seen the closing of its JC Penney and Ben Franklin anchor stores.
Gutierrez has been trying to reengage the public’s interest in Kent’s authentic downtown, which includes a couple of blocks worth of historically significant buildings, some of which were built by Kent citizens who headed north to make their fortunes during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, then came back to town to build their own banks and mercantile establishments. The KDP is an accredited Main Street America program, in recognition of its commitment to preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.
When she arrived in Kent last summer, Gutierrez began showcasing local merchants in upbeat YouTube videos, and late last year, the KDP launched a downtown shoppers’ discount program with a Penguin Savings Card (named after a popular public artwork downtown).
But with the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, which began in March and has been extended into May, these small downtown businesses have had to scramble to see if they can keep their businesses afloat.
Restaurants have been offering curbside pickups, while other businesses are partnering to do deliveries. Some merchants are offering online shopping for the first time.
Elissa Moore, owner of Moore Than Rocks in the heart of Kent’s downtown business district, is one of them. Her store, which celebrated its sixth year of business on May 1, sells polished stones, rough minerals, fossils, petrified wood, and “much Moore.”
In a 2 AM e-mail responding to this reporter’s questions (“You caught me in a rare quiet moment in the past few weeks!” Moore deadpanned), she discussed the pivot she has made in her business model.
She had tried applying for grants and Small Business Administration assistance, but never heard back.
“After many, many hours waiting on hold I decided I couldn’t rely on assistance.”
Instead, she learned to adapt.
“Prior to Covid, we did not sell online. This was taking on an entirely new business platform – blindly.”
Moore Than Rocks began to offer daily live sales on Facebook, and the response has been gratifying.
“It hasn’t been easy or without immense stress, but we have been able to keep our love and business growing.
“The symbol for the sixth anniversary is iron,” she went on, “representing strength and creativity. In this time we are facing, that is the most appropriate symbol!”
Gutierrez and Ellis have also put their heads together (virtually) with Kevin Grossman at the Kent branch of Green River College’s Small Business Center, creating webinars and virtual panels with open conversations to offer advice for those applying for the payroll protection program and other mitigation opportunities.
Grossman, like everyone else, has been dismayed by how quickly the state and federal systems set up to distribute emergency aid have been overwhelmed. But he understands how it has happened. Typically, he says, the Small Business Administration processes about 800,000 applications for the economic injury disaster loan annually. But after President Trump declared a national state of emergency, the agency had over a million applications in just a few days.
The Trump administration has received plenty of criticism for allowing large companies to tap into the Paycheck Protection Program that had been designed for small businesses.
And in Kent, which is a majority-minority city with a sizable population of immigrants and refugees, Ellis points out that there’s been an additional hurdle for business owners whose first language isn’t English. Translation assistance in filling out the necessary forms has not been readily available from the outset, “and applying successfully for money sometimes means doing it in minutes, not days.”
Grossman says he’s also been having conversations with business owners one-on-one.
“We’re looking at their cash flow and their expenses and thinking about what reserves they have, and what costs they have.”
Grossman says he even does a degree of role-playing, trying to help business owners prepare for those hard conversations with their landlords when they’re not going to be able to make their monthly payment on time.
He’s been heartened by some of the responses he’s heard about. “A lot of landlords are willing to work with them. If they know this is something that is way out of their tenant’s control, and they are going to be good for it and honor whatever agreement, they’ll work out a plan to pay it out over a period of time.”
The alternative isn’t very attractive, he points out. If a landlord takes an aggressive stance and makes his current tenants go away because they’re having trouble paying right now, “What are you going to do when the market turns around and you have an empty space? There’s going to be a lot less demand at the end of this year. It’s going to take a lot of time for people to recover.”
Grossman has also been encouraging business owners to use this downtime to be really thoughtful about their plan for recovery. “What’s their outreach going to be to their customers? It’s going to take some proactive effort to wake people up, and the businesses that are going to do the best in the recovery are the ones that are thinking about those things right now.”
Just as business support groups have been working hard to provide assistance to the business community, social service agencies in Kent have been hustling to meet unprecedented demands for their services.
Brenda Farwell, executive director of the Kent Community Foundation, notes that her organization had already expanded in recent years from its original mission to support cultural arts and education, to address basic needs and health and wellness issues as well.
As a leader who has always made it a point to bring others into the conversation, Farwell has nonetheless been dazzled by the vastly expanded scope of connections and conversations that have taken place in Kent over just the last couple of months as organizations and individuals have come forward to support each other in common cause.
When the regional food bank thought that it would be unable to meet all of the requests it had been inundated with, a phone call that ended at 11 PM resulted in 300 additional boxes of food being assembled and delivered in time for the distribution that was scheduled for 10:30 the next morning.
“I am inspired every day by the things people are doing in this community,” Farwell says. “When one group’s short, everyone else jumps on. We meet on Tuesdays and Fridays and ask ‘Who needs what?’ and people share distribution chains. It’s unbelievable – we’re crossing barriers that have existed for years.”
But she’s still concerned that people are being overlooked. She ticks off a long list: “Homeless teens – kids who were couch-surfing and hanging out with friends of families, but now find themselves socially distanced. We probably still have some elderly that we’re not reaching. I think there are those people who are on that cusp – lower income, not quite middle class, who still have needs and maybe are not comfortable asking for help. And I think we still have some refugee and immigrant populations that need help.”
Just a few blocks away, at the headquarters of Living Well Kent, Shamso Issak can confirm the validity of that last concern. Somali-born, with a Master’s degree in organizational leadership systems, Issak is LWK’s executive director. This collaborative is dedicated to increasing access to healthy food and improving health outcomes for low-income people of color, including immigrant and refugee families.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, LWK has gone from serving 100 families a week to 450 families a week. They’ve been delivering hundreds of boxes of food, including boxes that are culturally appropriate for Ramadan. In one week alone, they had more than 200 clients sign up to receive diapers for their youngest children.
With social distancing in place, LWK staff members have switched from meeting in person with their teen clients to holding biweekly one-on-one phone calls and Zoom hangout sessions to check on their socio-emotional needs now that they’re living in relative isolation.
LWK also has provided translation and helped clients apply for emergency resources such as housing and rental assistance, unemployment benefits and health insurance. And they’re monitoring reports of hate crimes associated with racism due to the COVID-19.
“The concern is resources,” Shamso says, “because we are doing a lot more than before, with little resources.”
Kent Community Foundation’s Farwell hopes this difficult time may provide new impetus.
“We all need to hit that reset button,” she says, “considering how to take care of the distribution of wealth and how to provide more opportunities for everyone.”
All of which brings us around to the vociferous debate that’s roiling around the country right now between the “Stay Home for Your Health” contingent and the “Open Up Now” protesters.
Bill Ellis thinks that’s a false dichotomy.
“Economic development has an impact on public health and public wellbeing. Sometimes that lingers for generations and I think that should not be dismissed.
“I don’t know that it’s a balancing act, so much as if we don’t get one right, then the other will be harmed. In this case it’s terribly interlinked and connected and it’s hard to pull them apart. So we have to figure out a way to manage this clearly.”
Let us think on that.
City of Kent
Kent Downtown Partnership
More Than Rocks
Green River College
Kent Community Foundation
Living Well Kent