The city of Cheney quietly has strengthened its infrastructure over the last couple of years and used conservative budgeting to avoid the recession-related financial woes that many local jurisdictions are experiencing.
Now, it's taking steps to try to add the piece of the puzzle it believes it still needs for long-term balanced growthmore private-sector development activity, particularly in sectors such as manufacturing and intellectual property.
"We're really on a mission to greatly increase our assessed value. We'd like to double it over the next few years," says Mayor Tom Trulove.
Cheney is located 17 miles southwest of Spokane and is home to Eastern Washington University and about 10,700 permanent residents.
With its goal in mind, the city has retained a public relations firm to help generate greater awareness of its attributesincluding a newly opened 38-acre business parkand has initiated discussions with EWU on possible collaborative economic-development endeavors.
Trulove, a longtime Cheney civic leader and college professor who has chaired the EWU economics department for the last 15 years, says he also is in the process of putting together a broad-based economic development advisory board to help ignite and guide such activity there.
"It's somewhat a case of being out of sight, out of mind," given that the city isn't in a highly visible location, such as along Interstate 90, like Liberty Lake, he says. "We have to establish," in terms of public perception and to companies potentially interested in setting up operations there, "that we are a vital community and that we're ready to support economic development," Trulove says.
It's not like the city is suffering from a malaise. To the contrary, its resident population has grown by more than a quarter over the last 10 years, and it has benefited from an estimated $315 million worth of construction projects during that time. New housing accounted for a portion of that, particularly in the mid-'90s, but the lion's share of the spending has been at EWU.
"The government activity is great, but we're a little imbalanced," and need to focus more effort on enticing private-sector employers to move or open branches there, and to try to generate more university-related business startups, Trulove says.
For now, though, education projectsand not just at the universitycontinue to hold center stage.
A prime example of that is the roughly $65 million Patterson Hall expansion and remodeling project that's under way on the EWU campus and not expected to wrap up until April 2014. Patterson Hall is one of the main academic buildings on the Cheney campus. Also there, the design phase for a $74 million chemistry-and-physics building project is expected to begin next summer, with construction to start in the fall of 2013, the university's Web site says.
Additionally, EWUwhich expects its enrollment of nearly 11,000 full-time equivalent students to grow by about 20 percent over the next decadehas begun preliminary discussions about developing a new residence hall.
Meanwhile, as the Journal reported earlier, the growing Cheney School District plans to begin construction early next spring of two middle schools and has bought a 10-acre parcel on the West Plains where it plans to develop a new elementary school. All of the projects are to be paid for using proceeds from a $79 million bond levy passed by voters earlier this year.
To provide infrastructure for the steady growth it's experiencing, the city recently expanded the capacity of its wastewater-treatment plant in a $10.5 million project that it completed in October, and it also doubled the capacity of a compost facility it operates.
It uses sludge from the treatment plant together with wood chips and yard waste to produce the compost, which it sells to the public under the EcoGreen brand name.
The city also has spent about $1.2 million on arterial improvements recently and about $2.5 million on the new Cheney Industrial & Commerce Park, which opened in late 2009 at the southwest corner of the city on the north side of state Route 904, near its intersection with Mullinix Road.
Most of the money for the latter project, which the city is developing with the owners of packaging maker Allpak Container East LLC, through a public-private partnership, came from a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant.
Allpak, part of a bigger Seattle-area company that does business as AllpakTrojan, in 2006 bought the 115,000-square-foot, former Honeywell Electronic Materials plant and the 48 acres of mostly undeveloped land surrounding the plant. Two years later, the city bought 21 acres of that land from Allpak affiliate AE Cheney Land LLC for about $315,000, and it since then has spent much of the rest of the grant money and some city funds putting in streets, curbing, landscaping, sidewalks, and sewer, water, electrical, and fiber-optic services.
For the portion of the business park that it owns, located north of and adjacent to the Allpak plant, AE Cheney Land is seeking tenants interested in build-to-suit structures that they would lease. The city, though, which owns land on the otheror westside of a street, Fred Johns Way, that runs through the center of the business park property, is willing to sell lots to prospective tenants. Earl Engle and Scott Person, of NAI Black, of Spokane, are marketing the development.
Brian Jennings, the city's director of community development, says the city hasn't signed any tenants yet, but thatwith the infrastructure now in placethe lots there are "shovel-ready" for construction. He says he's hopeful that interest in the park will pick up as the economy improves.
AllpakTrojan, which moved its Spokane plant to Cheney, is among the city's largest private-sector employers, along with air-handling equipment company Haakon Industries Inc. and electronics manufacturer AMX.
Among the attributes the city is touting as it seeks to expand on that base are its school system, low crime rate, friendly small-town feel, and nearby outdoor recreation opportunitiesthe Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is five miles south of town, and numerous lakes are located nearby. Also important, it says, are its comparatively modest housing costs, its 15-minute drive to Spokane International Airport, rail access, and an absence of drinking-water supply concerns, compared with much of the rest of the West Plains area. Another benefit it believes it has compared with other jurisdictions here is that it operates its own municipal electric utility.
The city has just 98 full-time employees, and has had to ask them to shoulder a greater share of their health-care insurance costs, but hasn't been forced by the recession to lay off any workers, says city Administrator Arlene Fisher, adding, "We have been absolutely able to adjust to the financial changes."
Trulove says, "We haven't had a financial crisis. We've lived within our means. Not having to play catch-up means you're a lot more in control of your future. We don't do 'nice to have' any more, and employees approve of that."
As part of the effort to advance collaborative economic-development initiatives with EWU, Trulove and a number of city and university representatives traveled to Pullman together in late October to glean ideas from business incubation activities occurring at the Washington State University Research and Technology Park there.
"We talked about ways that engineering and business programs could be feathered into economic development initiatives the city was pursuing," and making sure the university is at the table for discussions with companies looking to locate in Cheney, says EWU Interim Provost Rex Fuller.
Although EWU isn't a land-grant institution, and "the research we do is more applied" than ideally suited to new private-sector ventures, Fuller says, "There are ways in which we can connect our students to activities that might be startup businesses."
Fuller says, "I think what we've done is we've opened the dialog. That's certainly a partnership that makes sense to us," and more talks are planned.
On the Cheney housing front, projects have slowed, but city officials say Spokane developer Lanzce Douglass has completed the first phase of a large two-phase apartment project there and is beginning work on the second phase.
Douglass couldn't be reached for comment, but city officials say his Eagle Pointe Apartments complex is expected, when finished, to include 576 living units in 24 buildings spread across more than 30 acres. Douglass is developing the project through a company named Eagle Pointe Apartments LLC at 1090 Betz Road, just west of Cheney Middle School on the north side of the city.
The first phase of the project originally was estimated to cost $17 million and was to include 192 units in eight three-story apartment buildings, as well as a recreation building, but Jennings says Douglass made some revisions to the phases and 240 living units now have been completed.
City officials, meanwhile, are working on a rewrite of the city's comprehensive plan, the policy document that will drive development in Cheney over the next 20 years. Among other things, the plan update is expected to reflect public input urging more commercial opportunities closer to campus activity centers, such as the football stadium, Jennings says.
After a year-long process of city staff members piecing together a new comprehensive plan draft, and assimilating public comment into it, the city's planning commission could make a recommendation to the Cheney City Council on the plan update as early as next month, and the council potentially could take action on it in January, Jennings says.
Fisher was employed by the city of Liberty Lake for seven years before becoming Cheney's city administrator two years ago, and she sees some similarities and notable differences in the characteristics of the two municipalities.
"Liberty Lake is a newer community, a new shiny penny. In Cheney, you have an established tradition and a community that is 125 years old," but one that owns the utilities that serve city residents, she says. "One of the key similarities isin Cheney, like in Liberty Lakeyou can make your own destiny."
She adds, "We have an opportunity to make an impression 365 days a year. While we don't have I-90, we certainly have a stream of people coming in and out of here," such as for EWU football games and other university-related events. "So," says Fisher, "we just have to take advantage of that."
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