Anacortes City Council Position 2 candidates Christine Cleland-McGrath and Dom Tor Fleming bring different experiences to their campaigns but want to achieve much of the same thing: Luring businesses to Anacortes and making housing more attainable for people earning the local median wage.
Cleland-McGrath, 34, graduated from Anacortes High School in 2003, then earned an art history degree at Whitman College and studied visual communications at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. She’s a broker for Windermere Real Estate in Anacortes and has served on the Anacortes Planning Commission since 2015.
Fleming, 52, earned a master’s degree in business administration at University of Chicago and is chief financial officer and chief operations officer for a recruiting company serving high-tech industries. Like Cleland-McGrath, he’s volunteered for various local organizations and is vice president of the Skagit County chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Art of compromise
Cleland-McGrath said she learned the art of compromise working at Similk Golf Course, which her family founded, by negotiating business decisions with family members who didn’t always agree. She said those skills prepared her for involvement in city government.
“Mix family business and generations, and you’ve got to learn how to fight fair and you can’t walk away and you’ve got to sometimes take breaks,” she said. “You have to be able to articulate your argument but also kind of have an understanding of the opposing viewpoint and make those tough decisions, and then when the decision’s made, move forward.”
Fleming honed his skills in compromise and collaboration helping organizations figure out ways to work more efficiently.
“One of the things I’ve done professionally for a lot of years is pull organizations back together in turnarounds, help them understand how they should be organized, clean up their finances, get revenues rolling and control expenses,” he said.
Referring to his volunteer work with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, he said, “What they needed was someone who could help them figure out an organizational structure that would make them effective. That’s what I was asked to come in to do. Dr. Andy Hines (who recruited him) left the board as soon as I finished all that work and I find that I’m still a vice president.”
Cost of living
Both candidates are concerned that rising housing costs are fraying the community fabric.
“The community needs to look at all (affordable housing) solutions,” said Cleland-McGrath, who as a planning commissioner participated in the revisions to the city’s development regulations and zoning map. “I don’t think we’ve had a rigorous discussion about those options because the council and city have been focused on dealing with development regulations and what we can do there. I think that we need to look at a variety of options.”
She said the Housing Authority and its properties are well-positioned to make an impact.
“They have land and units; there may be opportunities to go to a third story or a fourth story there. That’s land the city already has in its possession. Smaller units is a great option. Smaller doesn’t mean they’re tied to affordability, but when you’re at zero percent vacancy, anything helps. So if we can do some one- and two-bedroom units, that could free up some single-family homes that have been the only rental option.”
Fleming said he doesn’t support construction of five-story buildings — which is now allowed in exchange for a percentage of smaller and, theoretically, more affordable units — because residents have told him they don’t want them.
“It changes the flavor of the neighborhood where they’ve been living for 50 years,” he said. “I don’t want this to become an overly built-up area because residents are telling me that’s not what they want.”
He sees a different solution.
“We have to create more opportunities for more decent paying jobs in town. If we can do that, then people can afford to buy houses, they can afford the apartments,” he said. “If we can invite and provoke companies to employ our people, to build their business in town, then that enables that in a greater way.”
As for creation of affordable housing, he said: “The only thing we can do is to create an additional supply. We can work with Habitat for Humanity, for example. We can create tax advantages for developers to build lower-cost housing, but there has to be a commitment from them to work to keep the costs affordable.”
Cleland-McGrath said that as the city grows, it’s important that new residents get engaged.
“A lot of the people who move here bring a lot to the community,” she said, “Making sure as elected officials that we make a point to incorporate them in and figure out what their talents and strengths are and ask them to get involved is a very important thing.”
Fleming said affordable home ownership and rentals are key to building an engaged population.
“When we moved to town, there wasn’t a rush hour. Now, I go back and forth to Seattle every once in a while and when I’m coming in at 5 p.m. there’s a rush hour leaving town,” he said. “A lot of people work here (but don’t live here). If we’re not going to be able to support workers here, they’re going to have to live in Sedro-Woolley or Marysville or further out. … It doesn’t contribute to a holistic and tied-together community.”
Cleland-McGrath said her goals and priorities for a four-year term include updating the Critical Areas Ordinance and the Shoreline Management Program; making the city website more user-friendly; beautifying South Commercial Avenue; completing the Guemes Channel Trail; and finding ways to make child care services available to the community.
“It’s expensive for the family, but it’s not necessarily profitable for the business, and there’s quite a bit of regulations,” she said. “So, when we talk about a family with two incomes and you have to have child between 1 and 3 before they can start early preschool, that can really add to the burden of living in Anacortes … However the city can be of assistance — if we have underutilized space for it — we need to have that in the discussion.”
Fleming said his goals and priorities include responsible economic development, protecting Anacortes’s forest lands, minimizing loss of trees due to new development and drawing new businesses and jobs to town.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of people while door-belling in the area, and one of the biggest things they talk about is we went through this period of 25 years without bringing any new jobs to town and manufacturing was declining,” he said. “That has the impact now that many people are underemployed, they’re working two or three jobs just trying to pay the rent.”