State of the City 2024: Auburn mayor addresses growth, parks and more

Speech was held Feb. 29 in the Events Center at the Muckleshoot Casino.

When Mayor Nancy Backus and her family moved to Auburn in 1968 during the administration of former Mayor Stan Kersey, the city’s population was about 17,000.

In her annual State of the City speech Feb. 29 in the Events Center at the Muckleshoot Casino, Backus took a step back to talk about how the city got to where it’s at and a step forward to describe how the city of nearly 88,000 will make it better. She also addressed public safety and revitalizing the downtown.


Since the year 2000, Backus began, city planners have permitted 4,500 single family residential homes, more than 5,200 multi-family homes. There are 800 new residences in the downtown core than there used to be, part of the city’s effort concentrate growth near transit facilities and electrify the downtown.

Since 2020 alone, the city has grown by more than 2,500 residents, and it is projected to hit 100,000 by 2029. Earlier this year, Auburn annexed the Bridges neighborhood, formerly part of Kent, as the newest addition to Lea Hill.

Growth is part of life, Backus said, but it needs to be done right, and residents need a stake in the process as the city’s movers and shakers work to address state requirements for middle housing, affordable housing and infrastructure improvements for transportation and utility systems.

To ensure it happens in an orderly way, the City of Auburn is well into updating its Comprehensive Plan to set a vision for the next 20 years and accommodate growth during that span. The state has said the city must plan for 12,000 new housing units and 20,000 new jobs. This plan, due by the end of this year, will include an update to the Auburn Downtown Plan.

“I can assure you, things are happening,” Backus said.

In the coming years, Backus said, the city will replace downtown infrastructure such as utilities, sewer, water, traffic signals, and plaza areas, remove overhead and underground utilities in the alley between East Main Street and 1st Street NE, all the while promoting aesthetic improvement and safety.

In a nutshell, this means revitalizing Auburn Avenue from East Main Street to the alley north of Main Street with a new sewer line and upgraded street lighting. It means upgrades to the East Main Street and Auburn Avenue intersection with a new traffic signal, ADA-compliant ramps, and utility replacements.

It also means news sidewalks on East Main Street from Auburn Avenue to the B Street Plaza, improving pedestrian accessibility and infrastructure, including sewer lines, enhanced landscaping, and improved lighting for a vibrant community space. Additionally, the city will add decorative street lighting on Main Street. Funding has been secured, Backus said, and construction should begin by the end of the year and continue into 2025.

Perhaps the biggest and most exciting part of this downtown plan is the Auburn Avenue Theater. Later this spring or early summer, the city will raze the old theater to make way for something new. After that comes the design phase for a new Auburn theater, and from there, an analysis to see how much the project will cost.

“While I can’t give a specific date since there’s so much still unknown, I can say confidently that we will bring theater and performing arts back to downtown soon,” Backus said.

Backus touted some new businesses: SeaAxe on Main Street, PNW Coffee at the Transit Center, and The White Willow Company, in the Arcade building near Safeway. All storefronts at the Outlet Collection Seattle are now leased and occupied, she said.

Backus said the city’s partnership with Pacific Raceways also continues to be a source of pride for Auburn. The economic and recreational benefits are immense, bringing thousands of race fans to the Auburn area.

Public safety

Backus said her top priority is public safety, and talked about positive developments at the Auburn Police Department.

During and following the COVID-19 pandemic, Backus noted, police departments nationwide faced a surge in resignations and transfers, leaving communities in need. So in 2023, the mayor outlined staffing priorities to restore pre-COVID levels for resident safety.

“Though we’re not fully there, significant progress has been made,” Backus said.

Since 2020, the Auburn Police Department has hired 10 records specialists, two evidence technicians, an animal control officer, a public information officer, an administrative specialist, a Police Wellness Program designer, and 55 officers. Of those officers, 19 of them are laterals — experienced hires from other agencies — while the rest are entry level.

“I wish I could say that all of those (hires) were additional positions, but they’re not. Most of those were simply replacing the vacancies. Our upcoming biennial budget for 2025-2026 should help address the need for additional officers,” Backus said.

To keep qualified officers, the city has implemented its Officer Wellness Program. This new initiative is about prioritizing the well-being of officers and their families, including their physical and mental health.

Why? Take a look at the data from a 2013 study:

Officers may experience up to 3-5 critical incidents in a given shift, while others perhaps experience 3-5 in a lifetime.

The average life expectancy for officers is 57, almost 20 years less than everyone else.

The average age of a first heart attack for police officers is 46.

And according to Richard R. Johnson, Ph.D., in November 2019, the life expectancy at retirement is only about 6 years.

Still, certain types of crimes are up, people don’t feel safe walking home at night, and increasingly, people have become more scared of each other.

“I do understand that feeling and I agree, it’s unacceptable. We, as a society, need to do more. In Auburn, we need to do more. And we will continue to do more to address this problem,” Backus said.

“I know it’s frustrating for most, if not all of us, to see the same story play out again, and again, and again. A crime happens, an arrest is made, the suspect is released, and it repeats.

“…We’ve seen direct evidence of changes based on legislative action. Since the City Council expanded its stay-out-of-drug areas, or SODA, and emphasis patrols began in earnest a year and a half ago,” Backus said, citing “remarkable results.”

Backus said the city’s anti-homelessness team has contacted hundreds of individuals, referring them to services and long-term housing. The team has since expanded the patrols to include law enforcement south to Howard Road and north towards Lowe’s. That also means there have been more arrests.

“Let me be clear, I do not believe that jail is the answer for everyone, but I do believe it must continue to be an option. At South Correctional Entity or SCORE, there are opportunities for those who are confined to receive services including drug treatment, housing assistance, and more. For some, it is the only answer that will keep them alive,” Backus said.

The anti-homelessness team under Kent Hay has grown. Just a little over a month ago, the city brought on another full-time outreach coordinator, making the team’s total headcount at three. In 2023, the team successfully housed 95 people citywide, setting Auburn apart by providing comprehensive support, Backus said.

Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA, Auburn’s anti-homelessness team worked within the city-designed Clean and Sober Housing Program to help 30 individuals complete 30 days of inpatient treatment, and then facilitated their transition into housing, she said.

As of November 2023, the Auburn Community Resource Center, which is undergoing expansion, has recorded a total of 1,835 visits, she said.

In January, the city celebrated the opening of Don’s Place in north Auburn, a building capable of safely housing over 100 participants through King County’s Health Through Housing initiative.

Alongside the city’s partnership with King County, Auburn has enhanced its Community Court program to include in-custody participants from SCORE. In the past six months, the city has invited 20 to the program, and of those, 12 have graduated, four are actively participating, and two are currently in in-patient treatment or have just completed treatment, according to the mayor’s speech.

Because of these positive results, the city is exploring expanding the court from half a day to a full day. With more participants in community court, Backus said, the city can keep up its work to improve the lives of the individuals in the program and the Auburn community as a whole.

Parks and more

This past year and before, Backus continued, the city’s Parks, Arts and Recreation staff have worked hard to improve parks, trails, bike programs, the golf course, and more.

In 2023, parks staff replaced the tired playground structure at Frank Fulmer Park with a new and larger playground, the first of its kind installed in the state. At Auburndale Park on Lea Hill, the 1980s-era playground was replaced with much needed new equipment offering ADA-accessible features, and the pathway around the park was likewise funded and constructed by Peak Machinery, a local Bobcat dealer.

“I can attest that you can even walk the trail in heels, although I don’t think I’d recommend it,” Backus said.

Cedar Lanes Bike Park was finished in 2023, creating a dirt skills course through the woods. Phase 2 will include a bicycle pump track and a new restroom/storage building. Additionally, the Pioneer Bike Club program, which has taught more 100 kids how to ride a bike, cooperated with this project. This pilot program, in collaboration with Pioneer Elementary, ran for four weeks. In 2024, the city will expand to serve more elementary schools and their students.

This past year, the City of Auburn Golf Course underwent turf improvements to respond to the surge in golf popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic. Membership in both the men’s and ladies’ clubs totaled nearly 1,250, while the Couples League expanded for the third consecutive season to their present 130 members. Golf course revenues for 2023 surpassed those of 2022.

Meanwhile at Mountainview Cemetery, the parks department began the process of expanding the ForestWalk Cremation Garden.

For fitness enthusiasts and beyond, there are the city-run programs, including summer camps, youth programs and the REC that maintain robust membership. When it comes to pickleball, 21 programs were offered in 2022, serving 210 participants, which expanded to 50 programs in 2023, engaging 740 players.

Last year, Auburn’s parks maintenance crew, alongside hundreds of residents during Clean Sweep in early April, helped plant more than 1,200 annuals throughout the city, installed 230 yards of mulch at Les Gove Park, spread out 80 yards of wood chips at Auburndale Park, and another 70 yards of playchips at Brannan Park and Isaac Evans Park.

City events saw robust attendance again this year. PetPalooza in May had an exceptional turnout, boosted by fantastic late spring weather. Events like KidsDay and the Halloween Harvest Festival and Les Gove Park Trunk-or-Treat also drew thousands of families, including several from City of Auburn departments.

“And how could I not gush about the Postmark Center for the Arts, the city’s newest arts and culture center? Only a few months after opening, the center is already offering varied and relevant programming to all ages, including drop-in painting classes, ukulele lessons, poetry readings and more,” Backus said.

“We’re lucky to live in a city so committed to the vibrancy and beauty of Auburn, led by a parks department full of incredibly talented and dedicated staff,” Backus said.