No two topics dominated Suzette Cooke’s attention in her 12 years as Kent mayor as much as the ShoWare Center and the Green River.
Shortly after voters elected Cooke in 2005, city leaders focused on bringing an arena to the growing town. The city-owned events center opened in 2009.
“I was always disturbed as Kent grew that we had to take our big events outside of Kent,” Cooke said during an interview last week at City Hall as her final days in office come to an end. “ShoWare accommodates our large banquets and meetings. We long ago had outgrown Kent Commons and the Senior Center for community events.”
Not long after the arena opened, Cooke’s days, weeks, months and years became filled with threats of the Green River flooding the Kent Valley because of a leak in the Howard Hanson Dam. Nearly 1,200 people attended a public meeting in October 2009 at the ShoWare Center to learn about the threats of flooding and what they can do to protect themselves.
“Little did I know the Howard Hanson Dam would create such a panic about flooding,” Cooke recalled. “I heard from people who left money on the table for a house they were buying and leaving. People said they could not sleep because they were afraid of a flood.”
Cooke also told a story about a corporate jet from Hartford, Conn., that landed in 2009 at Sea-Tac Airport carrying executives researching whether to build a West Coast office in Kent.
“They had just read about the flood (in Newsweek),” Cooke said. “They landed and didn’t even get off the plane. They turned around and flew back to Hartford.”
Now as 2018 nears, the accesso ShoWare Center and the Green River levee system remain top priorities for Kent. And because of Cooke’s work over the past 12 months as well as her 12 years, she is the 2017 Kent Reporter Person of the Year.
Levee repairs needed
City, state, King County and federal funds continue to be spent to repair Green River levees as Kent nears completion of a multi-million dollar program started almost a decade ago to protect homes and businesses from flooding. Government bodies have spent about $72 million ($12 million by Kent) since 2008 to upgrade the levees, according to Mike Mactutis, city environmental engineering manager.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fixed the Hanson Dam seepage issue in 2012 but city leaders learned levee repairs were needed in Kent to get the Green River system accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would remove properties behind the levee from FEMA flood maps to reduce development restrictions and flood insurance requirements in the Kent Valley.
“We focused on rebuilding the levees, and it is still continuing,” Cooke said. “But major improvements have been made to help secure the valley properties.”
Cooke said she hears complaints about the funds spent to repair the levees.
“For anyone that thinks it will only affect a small portion of Kent so why invest millions of dollars, they don’t know how water runs back and covers a great area,” she said.
Without the Horseshoe Bend levee in south Kent near Central Avenue South, a Green River flood would cover land all the way to Renton, Cooke said.
Meanwhile, the $84.5 million ShoWare Center has turned into a destination. The 6,025-seat arena is home to the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, the Tacoma Stars of the Major Arena Soccer League, the Seattle Mist of the Legends Football League, numerous concerts and family shows, high school and college graduations and free community events such as the Kent International Festival.
“It really is a community facility for both entertainment and gatherings,” Cooke said.
Elizabeth Albertson, who served on the Kent City Council from 2006 to 2013, recently credited Cooke at a farewell party at City Hall for her work to bring an arena to Kent.
“We took a lot of junk the week that opened because it happened to open the same time the recession hit,” Albertson said. “But the people were asking us to build it. We did it, we persevered and we have continued to make Kent a great place. It was your leadership that said we are going to do this. We found a way to pay for it and it is reaping benefits in ways that we will never know.”
The arena has lost money each year since it opened in 2009, a loss of nearly $4 million in eight years. The city spends about $500,000 per year to help cover those losses. But the losses have been lower the last couple of years with the Thunderbirds advancing far in the hockey playoffs and a few more concerts and other events getting booked each year.
Despite the operating deficit, Cooke said the facility overall benefits the community.
“When one thinks about the whole picture – and what we don’t count in the bottom line is the admissions tax on the tickets which brings operating costs to a positive – and we add the economic return to businesses, a study a few years ago noted about $25 million (annually) was brought into the community,” she said. “It supported a lot of businesses during the recession.”
The outgoing mayor enjoys how the arena brings in events such as Khalsa Day, a Sikh religious and colorful festival filled with music, prayer, food and demonstrations and the city’s You Me We festival that celebrates the work of youth, teen and family resources serving Kent and showcases the talents of young local performers.
“The opportunity to bring families together for free events where we are learning about each other, sharing and adding values to people’s lives, that warms my heart,” Cooke said.
Leadership, people skills
Derek Matheson, city chief administrative officer, said at Cooke’s farewell party at City Hall that she will be remembered for much more than her three terms as mayor.
“It’s more than just 12 years – it’s 40-plus years of being a leader in the Kent community starting with leading the Senior Center, the Chamber of Commerce, representing Kent in the Legislature,” Matheson said. “You have many, many accomplishments.
“But I think your legacy is the people that you leave to your successor. The people you hired, but also the people that your predecessors hired and you mentored along the way. I know that you know that your staff not only respects you but absolutely loves working for you.”
Cooke knows people will remember her for the ShoWare Center and the Green River, but she expects her outreach to Kent’s diverse community will be recognized as well.
“The changes in population that have occurred in Kent – in a fairly compressed time period with both immigrants and refugees – has been the greatest change agent for the future of this community,” she said.
The mayor has worked with nonprofit and volunteer groups to welcome people from all countries to Kent.
“Many immigrants are here for business and education opportunities,” she said. “They come with skills and have a strong sense of family, education and business.”
Refugees come to town, many after living years in camps.
“That’s a life most of us can’t even imagine,” she said. “But what kept them alive was hope for their children.”
Cooke said people who arrive here from African countries and the Middle East reminds her of the Vietnamese immigration to America that started in the 1970s after the Vietnam War.
“People were escaping death to seek the possibility of a better future for their children and were making sacrifices similar to what we see now,” Cooke said about people who work two jobs in an effort to support their families.
With Cooke’s 12 years as mayor, she tied her predecessor Jim White for the second longest tenure in Kent’s 127-year history behind Isabel Hogan, who served 16 years from 1969 to 1985, according to city records. Neither Cooke nor White ran for a fourth term.
Cooke, 68, remains too focused on her final days as mayor to think about what’s next.
“I have no idea,” she said. “I really don’t. I have avoided setting up plans for what I am going to do next because I’m enjoying so much what I am doing here.”
Cooke lives with her mother, Virginia Allen, 90, in a condo in The Lakes neighborhood near the Green River. Cooke’s husband David Cooke committed suicide in 2009 at their East Hill home.
“I have a honey do list from my mother,” Cooke said. “I moved in with her. I have a little tiny bedroom. We are hooked together. She is still a character. Her red hair and freckles show through with her personality.”
Cooke said she still has “downsizing to do,” prior to figuring out what’s next in her life.
“Whatever I do next, it will be something that engages people in embracing and stretching their talents and others around them,” she said. “That’s my niche. I worked with the developmentally disabled my first job, and I’ve done teaching and coaching. I get the best return on that because of the feedback I get.”
Matheson, the city’s CAO, like others, remains uncertain what Cooke will do.
“Best wishes for the next phase,” he told Cooke at her farewell party. “We don’t know what that is, but we know you will continue to be a leader, just in a different place in a different way.”
Council President Bill Boyce praised Cooke’s skills to lead.
“When you talk about leadership, it’s really about the shadow of a leader,” Boyce said. “When Suzette leaves, her imprint will still be here and that’s what you want from the shadow of a leader.”