Covington seeks partnerships in an effort to bring higher education opportunities to the city

Someday Covington’s town center could be more than just a place to shop and live, it could be a place to go to school, a place that could fill a higher education gap in southeast King County.

Bringing colleges to Covington is an idea which first came up in 2010. The city worked with MultiCare to develop a plan to bring higher education here with health care as the hook, explained Covington City Manager Derek Matheson. But that concept has broadened considerably since then.

“The short term goal is to bring higher education to Covington and the long term goal is to bring … some type of facility to the town center,” Matheson said. “The idea is that higher education can transform a community the way UW Tacoma transformed downtown Tacoma or the way Green River (Community College) transformed Kent Station.”

Meetings with administrators of Renton Technical College and Green River convened in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Then not much happened, Matheson said, until both schools reached out to the city in 2012.

Green River worked with the Covington Chamber of Commerce to develop what they called an interest scan, Matheson said, to determine what kinds of classes residents would be interested. Based on the responses Green River started offering courses at City Hall last fall. In the meantime, Renton Technical partnered with the Kent School District to offer the Medical Career Pathways program at Kentlake High School, with those classes slated to begin this fall.

In January, Matheson said, members of the City Council asked staff during the annual strategic retreat to expand the vision of education to include four year universities in addition to the burgeoning relationships with nearby community and technical colleges.

An ad hoc committee was formed in the spring which included Mayor Margaret Harto, Councilman Mark Lanza, Community Development Director Richard Hart and Matheson.

For Lanza, this is a particularly important concept to pursue, he explained in an email interview.

“First, on a personal level I strongly believe that just about everything starts and revolves around quality educational opportunities,” Lanza wrote. “We have positioned Covington to be the Southeast King County center for retail, and once the (MultiCare) hospital is built we will be the center for medical services as well. I want to also make us the center for educational opportunities. I have a vision of an all-inclusive educational program starting at kindergarten all the way through a bachelor’s program.”

Lanza noted that the Kent School District has added some elements of this concept but he thinks the city can take it to the next level.

A new element city staff is now considering, Matheson explained, is a university center.

There are only seven such centers in the country including one in Everett which is called the University Center of North Puget Sound, Matheson said, also known as UC Everett.

A portion of the Everett Community College campus hosts eight different public and private universities. Students can pursue a bachelors degree there through a combination of in person and online learning. It filled a gap in that portion of the state because Everett is a long drive to any of the schools in Seattle and Western Washington University is a fair distance away in Bellingham.

“We believe a similar gap exists in southeast King County and north Pierce County,” Matheson said.

Lanza wrote that the university center concept allows for a wider range of degrees to students. He pointed to the 20 different bachelors and masters programs offered by UC Everett.

“As far as benefits to Covington residents, cost and convenience are the main ones,” Lanza wrote. “Many students cannot afford to go away to a four year institution. Room and board put the cost of a bachelors degree out of reach for many. Granted they can attend one of the local universities in Seattle or Tacoma, but that also requires a commute resulting in an outlay of more time and money.”

Matheson said the next step is for a group of state legislators, City Council members, community and technical college leaders as well as other members of the community to tour UC Everett in the next month. The idea is to see if it’s a concept the city wants to pursue and if so, then work would need to begin soon to lobby the state Legislature to fund a feasibility study of the concept in Covington.

“While we’re working that university center track, we’re setting up meetings with representatives from each of the state’s six public four year universities to ask them what we can do to advocate for a physical presence in our community,” Matheson said. “The bottom line for us is that we think higher ed is a critical component of our town center vision but we know like the town center itself this effort is going to take many years and so we’re just trying to take one baby step at a time.”

Lanza and Matheson both see a number of advantages to a university center finding a home in the city’s town center plan, which envisions a walkable development that would feature a City Hall, a plaza, a park, shopping, homes, offices and more.

“The advantages for that is mainly economic development,” Lanza wrote. “Right now everything is dependent on KSD selling the property and moving Covington Elementary. In the absence of a bond issue being passed, they would need the sale of that property to be sufficient to allow the new school construction costs to be financially neutral. It is my understanding that there is a few million dollar difference. What I am hoping is that since one of the priorities of the legislature is to increase the opportunities of higher education to the citizens of Washington that this project would qualify for state and maybe federal grants.”

Because the town center plan includes housing, Lanza continued, what if some of that housing could be set aside for low cost student or faculty housing. That could go a long way in getting grant money — something Covington staff members have proven experts at in the past two years — which could help close the gap between what KSD can get for the property Covington Elementary sits on and what it needs to build a new school.

“If we could deliver a long term, solid tenant to a developer then that would enable the Town Center to pencil out and kick start the development,” Lanza wrote. “Our vision for the town center is not only a retail (and) economic center, but also a true community gathering center. Ideally City Hall, the library, post office, community center would all someday, hopefully be located there. A four year institution would only enhance that vision.”


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