Doug Lein, economic development manager for the city of Auburn since 2011, has retired. Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

Doug Lein, economic development manager for the city of Auburn since 2011, has retired. Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

Auburn economic development director leaves tall legacy

If Doug Lein should find himself on the roof of Auburn City Hall one day and scan the two blocks to his left and the two directly in front of him, he’d see four things that would have astounded the Auburnites of only a decade ago.

Buildings, big buildings.

Starting with the Trek Apartments where the Cavanaugh block used to be on East Main, followed by Merrill Gardens at Auburn for senior assisted living and memory care.

Teutsch Partners LLC’s project to build for Seattle-based NW Holdings residential apartments at 1st Street Southeast and South Division Street is near completion and already leasing apartments.

On 36 W. Main St., the block immediately south of City Hall, Levan Auburn Development LLC and Iouannou LLC — doing business as Auburn Partners Development Associates — is at work on the Legacy Plaza Auburn Senior Living Apartments.

It is no cosmic coincidence that the decade that saw those big buildings go up coincides exactly with Lein’s tenure as Auburn’s economic development director — he was the guy behind the scenes that made it all happen.

“He’s responsible for all of it,” said former Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis, who hired Lein in 2011 from his previous position in Las Vegas and worked closely with him. “He was involved with and responsible for every bit of the negotations that went on to get those blocks done, acquisition and sale.”

Those four developers combined have invested a quarter of a billion dollars in the downtown.

That accomplishment certainly has a lot to do with the smile on Lein’s face these days. But there’s something else: he officially retired March 31.

No, it wasn’t the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic that brought Lein to his decision.

“I’m going on 68, there you go,” Lein laughed.

Here’s a bit more about what Lein leaves behind.

The Teutsch project, which offers seven stories of wood-framed, residential apartments, 227 in all, with two levels of parking offering 252 stalls, and ground-floor retail. On level 2 is an outdoor plaza, and on floors 6 and 7 are outdoor roof decks. The mixed-use building takes up the entire block.

Auburn Partners Development Associates’ 8-story Legacy Plaza Auburn Senior Living Apartments, the project now in progress facing City Hall, takes up the whole block, with the exception of the Sun Break Café and its associated parking. It will be a mixed-use building, offering independent-living apartments for retired seniors, designed to suit various income levels, above commercial space.

Coming into the job “cold turkey” as he did, Lein said, “you have to get a grip on what the goals are, what do the council and the mayor want, and they are always the guiding light. But the one thing that popped off the page of course was all that empty land there by the transit station.

“Maybe coming from a larger city, I saw the impact of what that does to an urban core. By the time I got here, a lot of the migration from Main Street had already happened, and a lot of the retail space had been occupied by professional services. Don’t get me wrong, attorneys and accountants are a necessary part of the economy, but they’re a destination, a service-type of business, and they don’t particularly need to be in a retail corridor.”

When he arrived, Lein was motivated by a desire to breathe new life into what had been a moribund downtown.

“Between these four buildings, you’ve got 1,500 to 1,700 people walking out their front doors, and this is their neighborhood,” Lein said. “I see my neighbors in Lakeland Hills — I’m a mile away from the retail up there — people will walk up there because that’s their neighborhood.

“This is no different. These people are going to be walking out their front doors with money in their pockets, and they’re going to be looking for goods and services. That’s a lot of expendable income stepping out onto the streets. This gives you enough volume of bodies to where a boutique retailer can now say they can build a business out of that.”

The city was able to use the Transit Center as a persuasion point for the developers because they had the vision to see what it would mean to the people living in those apartments going up to Seattle to get a paycheck.

“They’re here because of the lower cost of housing compared to Seattle,” he said. “They’re here because transit connects them to their job if they need to go up, and I think the pandemic has just accelerated that dramatically with people working at home for a company in Seattle and they bring those paychecks back here. That’s what’s going to feed this retail, and that’s the way redevelopment works. It happens organically with the private sector’s investment, the private sector’s ideas, the private sector’s drive ambition and energy. Because if you can keep government out of that, it’s so much better.”

It may come as a surprise, Lein said, but in terms of economic development, the city has enjoyed success beyond those four blocks even in the grip of the pandemic.

Lein cited two major industrial projects just built on 287th Street and West Valley Highway, now 100 percent occupied, summing between them to 650,000 square feet of industrial space.

He cited another project just completed on 15th Southwest, boasting 400,000 square feet.

The long vacant building once occupied by packing supplier Uline on C Street Northwest has just been leased and is under development by one of the nation’s largest industrial supply firms. The tenant is doing a total upgrading and adding office space to make the building one of the most state-of-the-art, fully-automated distribution centers in the nation, Lein said.

Lein said he and his wife, Cindy, planned 30 years ago to retire to their native northern Wisconsin, where their son and daughter and their grandchildren live today, and he’s happy at the prospect of spending more time with his grandkids.

“I’ve been here 10 years. It’s been fun,” Lein said.

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