Inside Track: New city, same challenges
Mark Washington uses prior experience working for city of Austin to guide him as city manager in Grand Rapids.
Mark Washington was appointed Grand Rapids city manager just seven months ago in July, but for him, it feels like forever ago. The new city manager has been hard at work facing new challenges that come with being in a different city but also leveraging his experience to approach familiar issues.
Washington has been working in government for over 23 years, most recently coming to Grand Rapids from Austin, Texas, where he served as assistant city manager for nine years.
Prior to that, he worked with the city of Fort Worth, Texas, working his way up from an intern position, all the way up to assistant director.
While he spent most of his career serving local municipalities in Texas, Washington traveled far in his youth. Because his father served in the military, his family was stationed in Germany up until Washington was in the third grade.
“It makes you appreciative of the global economy, and it broadened my worldview of society,” Washington said. “I guess more practically, people ask me, coming from Texas, ‘Is this your first time living in a cold-weather area?’ I have to remind them, yes, more recently it is, but growing up, I certainly remember those cold winters in Germany.”
Washington served Austin during a time of critical change, and he said the city still is growing today. From the time he arrived in 2009 to when he left, the urban population rose from about 750,000 to almost 1 million.
Like in Grand Rapids, maintaining a vibrant downtown and core business district was central to his work with the city of Austin. His office worked very closely in partnership with the various downtown chambers, including Hispanic, African-American, Asian and LGBT chambers in Austin.
He also coordinated with the tourism and hospitality industry in Austin, which he said was a big factor in the city’s growth.
Washington’s work also involved spurring small business development and growth in downtown Austin. Similar to Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile, Washington’s staff, along with the University of Texas, began creating an “innovation district” around a new medical school.
“We created, much like what we’re doing here, an innovation district around medical technology, as well as small startups, around the effort of creating that innovation ecosystem,” he said.
While Grand Rapids is working to restore the rapids in the Grand River, Austin’s Lady Bird Lake was the center of numerous projects Washington had a role in.
The city of Austin had to re-engineer the flood plane in parts of the downtown core that were previously deemed undevelopable to where they could be developed into parks, businesses, hotels and mixed-use developments.
“All of the things that we face here (in Grand Rapids), in terms of how to coexist in downtown … the same challenges that we have, particularly with parking, are the challenges we face as a growing community,” Washington said.
When Washington left Austin, the city was piloting a bike share program with dockless bikes. The rider instead uses an app to electronically check out a bike or a scooter. When the rider is done, the bike can be parked just on the sidewalk, and the vendor can locate and retrieve it via GPS.
The city was not very successful, however, because there was no incentive for responsibly parking the bikes. Staff would often find bikes lying around creating safety issues and general unsightliness.
“We found a couple in the river,” Washington added.
Grand Rapids and Austin have a lot in common with each other as growing cities, but Washington pointed out they both have unique issues. Because Texas is on the U.S./Mexico border, Austin has many Hispanic immigrants, over 35 percent by Washington’s count.
Washington said he sees a trend in Grand Rapids toward a growing Hispanic population.
“That is an emerging, growing community here in Grand Rapids,” Washington said. “So even though we had more, it’s almost like … I’m coming from the future. I get to see it before it happens again.”
With a growing Hispanic population comes similar issues Washington has faced before, like police/community relations.
Grand Rapids also has fewer square miles of land to develop and protect compared to Austin, meaning future growth for Grand Rapids will be denser, more compact and more connected than in Austin.
Grand Rapids also has the opportunity to be smarter and more strategic about its growth, Washington said. Because it’s on the front end of growth, it has time to plan in terms of land use and housing affordability.
Comparatively, growth in Austin was happening faster than city officials could anticipate the issues that follow.
As the economy grows, the income tax base grows, but so does the homeless population, Washington said. It’s not a new challenge for him to keep tabs on undesired gentrification as increased property values have priced people out of the market.
“I think we’ve been more on the front end of the issues here as we talk about Housing NOW! and creating more incentives for land use to be done that addresses the missing middle in terms of housing types,” he said.
In the midst of all the familiar challenges, Washington also was recently pressed with the unprecedented task of finding a new police chief. Former Chief David Rahinsky announced his retirement from the force in December after more than four years with GRPD and 32 years overall in law enforcement.
While Rahinsky’s departure creates a void in leadership, it also creates new opportunities. Washington said he believes there is good leadership in the department already to carry it forward while the city seeks out a new chief of police.
Washington also appreciates the sincerity of Grand Rapids and the desire to be a growing and thriving community. When he was going through his audit to be the new city commissioner, it was one of the things that impressed him most about the city.
“The partnership between government, community and business is just unbelievable, unmatched,” Washington said. “I feel it’s greater here in Grand Rapids than it is in Austin.”