A shy, soft-spoken man blessed with the unusual pairing of the brains of a top-flight engineer with a willingness to engage with people, Rich Wagner has been the City Council’s one unchanging presence for 30 years.
But when the council takes up its duties again in the new year, it will have to do so without the man who served on it longer than any other council member in the city’s 125-year history, the man who became its institutional memory.
But how do you replace someone who can recall vital minutiae of meetings decades earlier, on-the-fly, to the astonishment of his peers? The guy who knows how and why this or that happened and who was involved, long ago?
As Councilman-elect Larry Brown himself has acknowledged, it’ll take an impressive set of feet to fill those shoes.
“I’ll do my best,” Brown said.
Wagner has been in the thick of every major and minor change the City Council has effected since 1990: the rezoning of land to accommodate the Auburn Supermall, now the Outlet Collection, from tilt-up warehouses to a commercial zone; the siting and construction of Emerald Downs; the Valley Regional Fire Authority; 30 new firefighters; the M Street overpass; the money and effort the City has poured into the downtown to maintain the community campus as a gathering place; the City’s decision in the early 1990s to provide monetary support to the White River Valley Museum.
There’s also: the Lakeland Hills development; 200 acres of new parks; the construction of the SCORE jail; the emergency call system; the Transit Station; the establishment of the Auburn Environmental Park; the Cities and Schools Forum; the White River Trail; two transit shuttles and 20 percent more buses; 25 new traffic and pedestrian signals; 30 miles of new arterial main roads; an estimated 20 miles of new water lines, 30 miles of new storm drainage, and 25 miles of new sanitary sewers; the establishment of the Auburn Valley Humane Society; the Innovation Partnership Zone, Wesley Homes; and the Mary Olson Farm.
Just to name a few.
But his crowning accomplishment, he says with quiet pride, was seeing through the funding, construction and completion of the Auburn Community and Event Center and the Rec Teen Center in Les Gove Park.
“That has been my goal since before I even got on the council: to create a gathering space for this diverse community. And I think it’s working,” Wagner said. “I started working on it 30 years ago, so I’m pleased we finally did that, and I think it’s going to help a lot to bring Latinos and other large ethnic groups into the mainstream.”
Wagner’s passion for the project drew from him a rare outburst of anger the night when fiscal hawks on the council voted down a version of the center they argued was more costly than the City could afford.
“We wanted it to serve everybody, but we didn’t think we had enough money to do a teen center connected to it,” Wagner said. “That night, I was afraid that if we didn’t move ahead with the project that didn’t have a teen center in it, we would lose the momentum, and nothing would happen. That’s why you saw the impatience on my face that night; I didn’t want to lose the momentum we had going. But it turned out that it kept going, and kudos to Mayor Backus for acting like a mayor and finding a compromise that all the council members could agree on.”
Wagner is confident the center has improved and will continue to improve the quality of life for Auburn residents.
That phrase, “quality of life,” has been the guiding principle of his public service. And the question he asks of himself before deciding what to do about an important issue before him is always: “Is this decision going to help people have a better quality of life?”
From Wagner’s earliest days in the Eastern Washington town of Okanogan, where he was born in 1939, and in whose apple orchards he learned to work, it was on his mind.
“I was usually my class president because I wanted to get everybody involved and hopefully satisfy everyone, although I learned you can’t do that,” Wagner said.
Engineering came naturally to the lanky kid who, from first light, loved to build things, and still does, including the popcorn machine he built and operated later on in life, to the delight of Auburn youth.
“There was a sawmill in Okanogan called the Wagner Sawmill, and we always called them the Wealthy Wagners, and we were the middle-class Wagners, and there were some poverty Wagners, and none of us were related,” Wagner said. “Sawmill scraps were really easy to get a hold of, they’d just dump them. So I walked over there and collected an arm load of those and came home. I was 7 years old, and I built this carnival with an octopus and such, all out of scraps. I’d get a lot of praise for that skill, and it kept me making things.”
He would go on to earn an engineering degree from Washington State University, and years later work for Weyerhaeuser.
Wagner began his service for Auburn as a member of the City’s planning commission in 1987. His mentor in land-use matters was Mary McCumber, the City’s planning director at the time, who, he says, essentially wrote the state’s Growth Management Act, and would later became president of the Puget Sound Regional Council.
“She had a real feeling for this kind of community,” Wagner said. “She supported my efforts to create the rural residential zone out in the southeast portion where I lived. That’s where I learned that you have to give people choices; that one size doesn’t fit all.”
Call to the council
But the sudden death of Councilman Jim Walters one day in 1990 prompted then-Mayor Bob Roegner to ask Wagner to accept an appointment to council, years ahead of the schedule Wagner had set for himself. And he said yes.
Wagner has particularly fond memories of the first council on which he served, which numbered Roger Thordarson, Jean Barber, Bud Larson, Don Kurle and Pat Burns.
“Those folks all had strengths of their own, and I learned from every one of them. I particularly learned a lot from Bud Larson. He was a gas station owner most of his life, and he had a real feeling for the broader picture. For instance, when he started talking about mixed-use development with living spaces above, we all said, ‘What?!’ But as you can see, that’s the real thing now 40 years later. He taught me a lot about patience and goals,” Wagner said.
Wagner and fellow council member Sue Singer wrote the City’s first vision statement.
“I learned a lot from Mayor Roegner. He was a hands-on, get-it done kind of guy. He was an action person, and people loved or hated him for that,” Wagner said.
He would go on to serve under mayors Chuck Booth, Pete Lewis and Nancy Backus, all of whom he commended.
He is pleased that the city has gotten more members of the community – the elderly, the poor, the wealthy, ethnicities of all kinds, he says – involved in the thinking and planning process.
Of course, not everything worked out as he had hoped.
“I really wanted to improve our transportation system much more than I was able to,” Wagner said. “Still, we got a lot done. We got big overpasses, $100 million worth of those, but we really didn’t solve the pass-through-traffic issue. We know we’re centrally-located, so a lot of people are going to pass through on their way to where they’re going. I had hoped to reduce that congestion and increase economic development with all those customers traveling by, but we still have backups, blocks-long on Auburn Way South.”
While the years have slowed his step a bit and salted his beard and hair, Wagner’s powers of mind seem as strong as they have ever been. And one of the problems he still hopes to apply his formidable brain to — his mumbling. His family has tried for years to get him to speak up, to speak clearly, but in vain.
“I’ve never been good at articulating, in spite of all the public speaking I have done. I think it’s partly because I’m patient and not in a big hurry, so my voice is slow and low because I’m trying to get it out and eventually solve the problem, rather than staking my ground right there,” Wagner said.
Backus called Wagner a guiding force for many new council members over the years, including her’s.
“He should be very proud of a legacy that includes the development of many parks, new roads and the Community & Events Center. I appreciate his dedication to Auburn, and will definitely miss him,” Backus said.
“If you think about it, many have never known an Auburn City Council that doesn’t include Rich. He is the longest-serving council member in Auburn’s history, and I doubt there are many who can claim longer service anywhere in Washington,” Backus said.
“Rich Wagner has the mind of an engineer and the heart of a social worker. He is passionate about building public infrastructure that has the potential to bring our diverse population closer together. I have enjoyed long talks with Rich about how best to advocate for racial equity and the promotion of pluralism in our community,” said City Councilman John Holman.
Wagner and his wife, Kay, have four grown children: daughters Jill and Holly – both of them engineers – from his previous marriage; a son, Michael, from her first marriage; and their daughter, Annie.
Wagner, who is retired from Weyerhaeuser, plans to stay active.
“My future plans are pretty open. No travel plans, but just about everything else is being considered. I plan to stay in Auburn for the near term but may eventually move to the Eatonville area where Kay grew up,” Wagner said.