In her first mayoral speech, Mayor Amy Walen faced Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce members at their annual State of the City Address luncheon.
“The state of the city is poised,” she asserted after listing city improvements implemented during the last four years. “We’re the sixth largest city in King County and the 13th largest in the state.”
But it wasn’t always that way.
Walen described a time when a previous Kirkland City Council was perceived as dysfunctional, a search for a new City Manager was underway, and the annexation of 31,000 residents was a “looming unknown.”
“The great recession was deepening and city revenues plummeted,” she said. “Garbage cans were removed from parks and restrooms at playgrounds were closed.”
City streets had cracks and potholes, while Totem Lake Boulevard was constantly flooded.
The last few years were a time for healing, Walen said. Work on the Cross Kirkland Corridor and Public Safety Building began, a Totem Lake Park master plan was approved and the city was able to maintain AAA credit rating.
The city is stable now but there’s always room for improvement.
In 2022, the city will lose an annual $3.5 million in state sales tax revenue and Walen wants to see an actual plan to close that gap well before the loss.
“Probably our biggest task is to cease worry about the future and start preparing for it,” Walen said. “We will do this as we update our comprehensive plan and create a vision for the city in the year 2035.”
Citing citizens’ vision, Kirkland should be livable, walkable, green and vibrant she said, explaining the need to act on the Juanita Pool replacement and improve to downtown parking.
“My husband and I own Ford Hyundai of Kirkland,” she said, as the crowd anticipated a laugh. “Ford’s national campaign is that ‘and’ is much better than ‘or.’ It’s better to get great gas mileage and great comfort … This ‘and is better than or’ is also true for Kirkland. Our citizens want a Kirkland that is green and vibrant, not a Kirkland that is livable or walkable.”
The comprehensive plan update is expected to be finished by spring 2015.
In an earlier interview with the Reporter, Walen said the Council will attempt to have a very strong voice in Olympia this legislative session.
“We’re over 80,0000 people … My goal is to have us really come into our own in the region,” she said. “There’s federal money out there, there’s state money, and we have to do a very good job to make sure we’re at the table at all the meetings where decisions are made.”
Keeping Kirkland an affordable place to live amidst the city improvements is also important to Walen, as it is to the rest of the Council.
“It’s very important to all of us people can age in place, that it’s affordable to live here for working families,” she said. “We know we have challenges, this is too expensive of a place to live, so I think it’s our job to work on a strategic economic development.”
Walen said the Council is committed to looking at regulating the land use part of the controversial I-502 marijuana retail shop locations.
“People are really concerned about where these dispensaries are going to be located and I think with good reason,” she said. “Everything in government is a balancing act, right? We have a citizen initiative that says these activities are legal and then we have moms, parents and just everyone concerned about what kind of business go in what kind of locations. It’s an appropriate conversation to have and we’re committed to having it.”
Another top priority for the city is obtaining a pool partnership, and the city has already allotted about $200,000 for a study.
How Walen came to Kirkland
Walen grew up in Oregon through her elementary school years and moved to Australia in fifth grade. She went on to live there through high school and attended the University of Queensland, graduating in 1990 with a law degree.
She was a lawyer until 1994 when she moved back to Oregon.
While she worked to pass the Bar, Walen took a job as a cashier at a car dealership.
“I’ve just been very fortunate to work with auto dealers who promoted me,” she said. “I ultimately went to work for the same company my husband was working for and I ended up getting married.”
In 2005, Walen’s husband Jim was offered Ford of Kirkland, a spot in California and one in Colorado.
“So we looked at all of these locations and we just loved Kirkland,” she said, adding the dealership was originally a poorly performing store. “We have been able to grow it to be very successful … We’ve won awards for customer service and we’ve built it from 60 employees to 130 employees and we are a family over there. That’s our family.”
The same year Walen moved to Kirkland, she found out she had breast cancer. Having spent a lot of time at EvergreenHealth Medical Center for cancer treatment, the foundation asked her to be on the board. From there, she met former Kirkland mayor Mary-Alyce Burleigh, who encouraged her to get involved.
“Ultimately, getting involved turned into running for Council and I worked hard to win the seat and I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “It’s opened up a whole new world for me. It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had and I love it.”
Walen said former Kirkland mayor Joan McBride gave her some notes when she won the mayoral seat, which were passed down from Rep. Larry Springer, a former mayor.
“She has been a great guiding light in my political career and I hope that I can live up to her standards of, in her words, ’embracing being a public servant’ and every citizen is essential,” Walen said. “We have a responsibility to maintain and improve upon what the people who came before us did … It’s a very special place where we live, so I think our Council is very mindful of our responsibility to keep Kirkland the special place that it is. We have a legacy and it’s our job to take care of it.”
Walen, a Councilwoman since 2010, was picked to be the new Kirkland mayor by the Kirkland City Council on Jan. 7. Elected by voters for Position 5 last November, Walen’s term will expire at the end of 2017. She replaces McBride, who served as mayor during the last four years.