As we move into the new decade, it’s hard not to think back on how Washington has changed over the past 10 years. As many communities had to, Washington realized the need to adapt to the new economy after the Great Recession. It became clear that residential development was not going to continue the same as before, industrial projects were going to become more competitive, and it became more apparent to focus on our downtown as a catalyst to overall community success. City leaders understood that Washington needed to evolve with the changing landscape and, fortunately, some measurements from 2019 show that has paid off. In 2019, Washington had a building permit valuation of almost $45 million, a 28% increase of the year prior. A statistic that had continued to increase over the past 4 years as well. We landed Franklin County’s largest industrial project since the power plant with the construction of Melton Machine and Control’s new facility. The 330,000 square foot facility will double their square footage and be home to over 220 jobs. Clemco and Hodges Badge both moved their global headquarters from the west and east coasts, respectively, bringing approximately 100 new jobs with them. In 2019, we also saw residential permits at levels we haven’t seen since well before the recession. There were 115 new residential dwelling units built in 2019, breaking 100 new homes in a single year for the first time since 2006.
Looking back at the past decade, we can attribute these numbers to some of the changes the City has made. Identifying assets to capitalize on and challenges to overcome were crucial to finding our recent success.
A Call to Action
While Washington has become an excellent place to take a weekend trip, it has always been home to a regional workforce. Since its incorporation, Washington has always been a strong manufacturing town. First as a shoe factory town and then in the late 60’s diversifying itself with a number of different industries. For over 100 years, the commercial and residential growth would follow the new industry and, although commercial development moved out to the highway and new subdivisions followed suit, downtown always remained as the core of the community.
From 2000 – 2010 the City helped facilitate the development of a new industrial park and saw continued business expansion and job growth, even through the brunt of the recession. Retail development followed this trend through the same time period with the completion of a major shopping center and expansions to the highway system. The resiliency of the commercial and industrial economy in Washington remained apparent through the recession. City Staff realized, however, after reviewing the 2010 census data that residential growth did not mirror the commercial and industrial growth. Washington’s population had increased by .08%. A workforce study was completed and showed that 79% of the City’s workers lived outside the City limits solidifying Washington as a magnet for industry but not as a destination for families. Given the amenities downtown and throughout the City, it was logical to derive from the study that the potential for residential growth existed but the main deterrent was the cost of land in Washington. City Planning staff along with the Community and Economic Development Department recognized the issue and proposed a number of policy updates to facilitate more affordable residential growth. A new comprehensive plan was written with hundreds of comments and input from the community. It was determined that a main goal was to diversify housing options in Washington and facilitate more opportunities for renters and first time home buyers. This resulted in three major development code changes and an overhaul of the City’s zoning code.
The first proposal was meant to tackle land cost. The cost per acre in Washington in some cases was twice as much as the cost in two neighboring communities. At the time, the City required all new subdivision lots created to be at least 10,000 square feet in size. The City created two new zoning districts to increase the housing density. One allowed lot sized down to 7,500 square feet. The other allowed 6,000 square foot lots. Washington saw an increase in subdivision development almost immediately.
The second proposal included an attempt to lower development cost that in turn was passed on to the homebuyers. In one instance, this included allowing for narrowed street widths on certain streets that would not have through traffic on them. It also allowed for narrower streets and right-of-way when restricting parking on one side of the street.
The third development policy proposal included increasing the density allowance for multi-family development. It became clear that the outdated code from the early 80’s discouraged developers from investing in multi-family development. The City increased the density maximum by 33% to help meet the goal set forth in the comprehensive plan. Within one month the City saw 160 units requested over three sites.
Lastly, Washington made the decision to completely overhaul the zoning code. Major updates had not been done since 1980’s and the City saw this as an opportunity to modernize the code. The new code section updated zoning definitions and created policies for more modern uses, such as microbreweries and distilleries. The new code made it easier to develop mixed uses in the downtown district and created an opportunity for more planned developments.
Continued Revitalization Downtown
Washington saw an opportunity to facilitate growth throughout the community and provide housing options with the code changes allowing for new development all over town. All the while, attention was never shifted away from Downtown, as the City recognized it as its best asset. Today, someone returning a visit to downtown Washington for the first time since 2007 might find portions of it unrecognizable. Over the past 12 years, Washington has focused on underutilized areas of the downtown and seen great success. The City utilized Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Districts to not only identify blighted and underutilized land downtown but to facilitate a swift redevelopment. It began in 2007 with the Bank of Washington choosing to invest in downtown by rebuilding their $7 million headquarters on Main Street. Their commitment to the district allowed the creation of a conservation district that covered most of downtown and gave the City a tool to invest in much needed improvements. This allowed for the completion of large projects that clean up the district and encourage continued investment. These projects include burying all overhead utility lines, streetscape enhancements, public parking, and other aesthetic enhancing projects. As a result, over the past 12 years, Downtown Washington has seen over $30 Million of private investment in three active TIF Districts that include 40 new residential units, 4 new bars and restaurants, and 20,000 sq. ft. newly constructed retail space. All of which was constructed on underutilized or vacant lots downtown and has encouraged redevelopment of existing historic structures.
With the success of major redevelopment projects, the City and Downtown Washington, Inc. also realized an opportunity to assist property owners on smaller projects. The active TIF districts proved a success for downtown as a whole, but Washington wanted to expand that opportunity to property owners in the district that weren’t part of the major redevelopment. The City introduced The Small TIF Program. This program allowed owners of existing structures in a TIF district to recoup some of the property taxes captured from the increased development. If an owner of an existing structure agreed to add upstairs commercial or residential space, make façade improvements, or redevelopment with environmentally friendly materials they became eligible for a rebate of 80% of the increase in property taxes. The rebate is taken out of the sales tax generated TIF District Fund and given back to participating property owners in the district. The City wanted to recognize the commitment and investment of existing downtown owners and the Small TIF program proved a good way to do so.
On top of the Small TIF Program, Downtown Washington, Inc. also created a low interest loan program for owners of existing buildings in the district. These funds were made available through a Neighborhood Assistance Program Grant from the Missouri Department of Economic Development and allows downtown property owners to apply for up to a $100,000 loan offered at a 1% interest rate. As the loans are paid back, Downtown Inc. can loan the money out again to additional property owners in the area. Owners were able to participate in both programs and helped make what felt like long term dreams a reality. Being able to offer large and small scale incentives for developers and property owners increased investment in the district and solidified Downtown Washington as a destination. When marketing Washington as a place for young families to land, Downtown became the City’s most effective recruitment tool.
The progressive actions of the City and Downtown Washington, Inc. since 2007 are what drove the recent increase in investment and residential development. And in true Washington fashion, a new group of young citizens have been encouraged by the development and taken on a call to action of their own heading in to the new decade. A group called the Washington Young Ambassadors has formed and aims at continuing the progress by attracting more like minded young professionals and the employers they work for. The group actively organizes networking events, pub crawls and happy hours, and speaking events to engage the young professionals of Washington. In 2019, with the support of the local banks, they contracted with a video production company to create a video series on Washington. The five-part series will display Washington as a great place to live, work, and play and as a destination for young professionals to build a career and family life. A website, www.washmoworks.com, has also been created to highlight job opportunities in the area. Now, anyone looking for a new job or graduating from schooling can visit the site and search by job description or major to find the right position for them in Washington. The group also works with regional high schools, community colleges, and universities on reaching out to alumni lists to highlight all the opportunities Washington has to offer. Adopting the slogan, “Washington, MO… Plan on Staying”, the Washington Young Ambassadors are giving people all the tools they need to do just that, plan on staying in Washington.
More from the Blog...