Arlington owes economic boom to leaders' lofty goals, airport

ARLINGTON — This city has about 14,000 people and about 11,000 jobs.

That's a ratio many cities would envy.

"It's not quite 1-to-1, but it's pretty good," said Cliff Strong, planning manager.

There's general agreement that many factors came together here to help this city offer nearly as many jobs as residents. They include a sprawling airport left behind by a war, the proximity of Interstate 5 and the vision of community leaders.

"We had real good people with foresight," said Dale Duskin, the owner of Arlington Pharmacy and a former Arlington Airport Commission chairman.

Today, Arlington's businesses include dentists, aviation firms, veterinarians and lumber-supply companies.

One of the largest and most prominent recent additions to the city's industrial base was Crown Distributing, which moved from Everett, where it had been for 66 years, to a site at the south edge of Arlington Airport about 1-1/2 years ago.

Peter Bargreen, Crown's president, explained the move succinctly: "the location."

He said Crown, with about 200 employees, had outgrown its Everett space and found everything it needed in Arlington.

"Actually, they've got the land," he said, "and they've got the infrastructure."

The new location allows ready access to I-5 for the beverage distributor's trucks.

"Plus the land costs," Bargreen said. "In dollars per square foot, it was half the price of Everett."

Arlington's success in attracting business is well-known in the county, said Michael Cade, vice president of the Snohomish County Economic Development Council.

"The city's always been pretty progressive about pursuing job development," he said, and has attracted several strong employers, including Bayliner, Westar Properties and Crown.

And Arlington's original downtown has retained its vitality, Cade noted.

"They've really paid attention to the downtown core," he said. "You drive through downtown Arlington, and it's cool."

Longtime economic center

History played a role, Strong noted, describing how Arlington a century ago emerged as a trade center for northern Snohomish County, supplying the timber industry and getting log shipments by train from Darrington.

What would become a major element of the city first emerged in the 1930s, when the Works Progress Administration developed a small airport. The site was transferred to the Navy as a practice field in 1940, and in 1943 it became a Navy auxiliary air station, resulting in extensive construction of hangars and other aviation facilities. In 1959, it was released to the city of Arlington.

Duskin recalled two key decisions in those years. One was to preserve the airport. The second was to make an effort to develop a job base so young people wouldn't have to leave to find work.

"In retrospect, I think we're glad we did what we did," said Duskin, though the path was far from straight.

For several years, the city tried to raise money by staging drag races at the airport, with crowds coming from as far as Canada.

"Generally, people knew about Arlington because of the drag races," Duskin said.

Successes and struggles

But other things also started to change. I-5 was built near the city. The Seattle-area aerospace economy grew.

Success stories followed. One of the better known is that of Bayliner, which sprung from a small shop called Advanced Outboard Marine in Seattle in 1955.

In 1965, company owner J. Orin Edson was ready to expand and bought some hull molds, using the seller's name, Bayliner, for the line of boats. Production started in one of the old World War II hangars, and in 1986 Bayliner was sold to Brunswick for $425 million.

But it wasn't always easy.

"Twenty-three years ago, the airport had to borrow money from the city to pay its bills," City Councilman Oliver Smith said, recalling what he found when he became an airport commissioner.

After that, officials obtained appraisals, reviewed lease rates and found a developer, Westar.

"When we first came to the airport, they desperately wanted business because of the drop in the lumber business," said George Willock, a Westar partner, recalling how the company began developing properties in 1985 and 1986. Westar has 37 airport properties.

Westar attracted business in several ways, including "putting the word out," developing leased land at the airport and constructing buildings. The combination of connections and available land and buildings led to Westar's success.

The companies it attracted are "a real crisscross of businesses," Willock said. Machine shops are one of the largest categories, with 15 to 20 as tenants.

Other tenants include a distributor of deep-sea-diving equipment; the world's largest manufacturer of guitar cases, which at one time was producing 1,800 a day; cabinetmakers, and a manufacturer of potato-chip equipment.

"Just probably everything hit just right," said Don Meier, 82, also a former Airport Commission chairman. "We were very successful, and we started getting small businesses. The economy was good, we got a couple of companies from Renton."

Census data put Arlington's 2000 population at 11,713, and Strong estimated it's about 14,000 now. The average household income: $52,951.

The city is developing a new comprehensive plan to try to cope with the possibility the population could reach 30,000 by 2025. It took decades to get to the point where such numbers are being discussed.

"We just worked at it, is all," Meier said.

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or