Tired of commuting, a bedroom community near Seattle takes a risk
Marysville is the fastest growing big city in western Washington because there’s space to build housing. But there aren’t many jobs in Marysville. So one in six people end up commuting more than an hour to work.
It's a bedroom community that failed to make itself over in the 1980s. Now it's trying again.
Editor's Note: Our Region of Boom team will spend about a month in Marysville to see what it feels like to live in a town that's growing so fast. After Marysville, we'll visit other communities about an hour outside Seattle. Where would you like us to go? Tweet @KUOW #RegionOfBoom
That first time was in the late 1980s, when Marysville knocked down a few blocks in its historic downtown. In its place, developers built a mall.
“The goal and dream was that you don’t have to go to Everett to do your shopping; now you can do it all in Marysville,” said Ken Cage, president of the Marysville Historical Society.
Cage said the mall is convenient – he shops there himself once in awhile. But it came at a cost.
“What was given up,” he said, “was a big part of the history of Marysville that should have been preserved.” There was an old brick movie theater called the Bijou (“the jewel” in French). And there was an Italian restaurant with a funky natural history museum on its balcony. The Marysville Historical Society wanted to preserve it, said Cage, “but the developers out-bulldozed everybody that was involved.”
Ken Cage said after a ribbon cutting in 1988, the mall failed to thrive.
It didn’t help downtown very much, either. Darilee Bednar can attest.
“Those cobwebs up there, way up high? Those are from – those have been here almost 25 years, okay?” Bednar owns a bookstore in Marysville, a few blocks from the mall.
Three years after the mall opened, she had her best year. It made her hopeful. She thought she could ride this bookstore into old age and beyond.
“I thought I was going to die here,” said Bednar. “I had no intentions of retiring. I thought they were going to come in one day, and there would be my little body. Because I don’t have to make a whole lot.”
But after that first spurt of customers, many downtown businesses went downhill.
Bednar spends slow hours in her bookstore researching her favorite subject: historical industrial accidents. “Sawmill accidents ... I mean, somebody would lose a finger, somebody would lose an arm ... Yeah, I love accidents.”
Bednar has a dark sense of humor. She has to, in a way, because she has cancer. And with business so slow, she's had to face an uncomfortable fact: The bookstore business she grew over the years is not an asset for her to leave to her children; it’s a liability. She doesn’t want her kids to have to deal with her piles of books.
“I mean, I just can’t do that,” she said. So she’s shutting the place down.
Bednar isn’t the only one who regrets the mall’s effect on downtown. Jon Nehring, mayor of Marysville, agreed: “I think anyone who drove in would say, 'Well, that’s certainly not what we would do today.' But you know, that’s because hindsight’s 20/20.”
Nehring doesn't want to second guess his predecessor’s decisions. He said back then, with malls popping up all over, “It probably sounded like a really good idea.”
Those decisions are part of the past, and Nehring was elected to think about Marysville’s future. But like the mayor who approved the mall in the 1980s, Nehring is also making a big bet on Marysville’s future. He wants to take underused land in the north end of the city and turn it into a manufacturing industrial center. He drove me to see it.
“It’s largely agricultural land, you know, in its original state,” he said, standing on the side of the road, looking out over a grassy field.
“I even see a horse out there,” I said.
“You do. And you can see the flight path for the planes coming into the Arlington Airport as well,” he said.
Nehring’s plan would bring lots of jobs to this area. “Family wage, good-paying jobs,” he said. “The more the better.”
The city has spent millions of dollars on infrastructure. It built a regional drainage system, a freeway overpass and set up a big tax break for businesses that want to open up there.
The mayor said having jobs in town, whether supplying parts for Boeing or processing agricultural products from farms further out, could change things for people of Marysville.
“We’re a bedroom community of people that leave early in the morning and get back late at night,” he said. “Most people in Marysville leave this community during the day to work at Boeing, or the Naval Station in Everett or down south in Seattle at one of the tech companies.”
All that time commuting can wear a person down. Nehring knows: He used to commute to West Seattle from Marysville. He said people who don’t commute have three to four hours more to enjoy Marysville.
“You understand things more, you hear things more," he said. "You look out your window, you go out to eat here more. You have better conversations with people.”
It sounds like a win-win. But then I thought about Marysville’s big bet on the mall in the 1980s. And the brick buildings that were bulldozed.
I looked at the old horse, out there in pasture where Nehring wanted to put all those jobs. What about the farmers, I asked?
“Remember,” he said, “this has been dormant farmland for decades. It’s not being used as farmland and none of the owners want to use it for that.”
I ran the mayor’s argument by a local farmer. He called BS.
“A lot of ground – and they use the excuse that nobody wants to farm it – it’s because it’s not available to farm,” said farmer Andrew Albert. Albert runs a small farm in Arlington.
Albert's family has farmed in the area for three generations. But that family farm is just a piece of his business. He leases hundreds of acres throughout the region. In Marysville, he grows hay on leased land. He said Marysville land is special because it’s not in the flood plain. That means the soil is warmer and the growing season is longer.
“It’s just really good ground. I would love to farm more of it,” he said.
But Albert says the owners of Marysville’s remaining agricultural land are increasingly shutting out the farmers who would lease their land.
“If it’s a viable farm ground, it’s harder to get it developed,” he said. “So if it’s grown over in blackberry bushes and nobody’s farmed it in 12 years, then, they say, ‘Well, might as well do something with it, you know?’”
Lots of people are moving to this region. This land, here in northern Marysville, is inside what we call the Urban Growth Area. That means we’re planning to put more people and jobs here. As a region, we made our decision long ago: The future of this land is not agriculture.
“It’s kind of a shame from an agricultural standpoint to lose that ground. You never get it back,” said Albert. “But, you know, you’re fighting with population.”
And that population has to live and work somewhere.
Nehring believes if he can get give people shorter commutes, they’ll spend more time dining and shopping in Marysville. That will help the city revive its failing downtown. And so this big bet on manufacturing could help heal scars left over from that previous gamble – on the mall – that didn’t turn out so well.
Joshua McNichols can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.