Barbara Tolbert, Mayor for the City of Arlington, was elected in 2011, 2015, and 2019. In that time, she has provided leadership through the financial crisis and the 2014 SR-530 Mudslide. Her representation of Arlington during the SR-530 disaster led to her being named one of the most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2014.
Tolbert’s family settled into Arlington in the mid-1980s, establishing an aviation business on the Arlington Airport. Barbara became the Executive Director of the Arlington Fly-In in 1994 quickly building it into Arlington’s biggest tourism event, and still serves in a volunteer capacity for the event after elected Mayor. We spoke with Mayor Tolbert to learn more about her story as a pilot and a leader, and how the City has transformed during her time in office.
“I love the variety that there is in the work, like the diversity. Every day is different. The part I had to get used to was that you accomplish something, and there's no celebrating - you just move directly onto the next task, or the next hurdle that's in front of you. I really love the team that we've assembled to work on Arlington and when I ran for mayor, I saw Arlington as a community that was just fraught with opportunities to give the residents a better life, to give more access to things locally. And then my years of flying over Arlington kind of gave me that bird's eye view of what it looked like. I think that helped me see that third dimension of all the potential that was available.”
The City of Arlington in Washington State covers just nine square miles, with a population of just over 20,000. What the City lacks in size, it makes up for in being a ‘full service’ City - Arlington owns their own police and fire departments, and water and sewerage facilities. Tolbert is keen to note how unusual it is for a City of their size to have an airport, something that has presented a massive opportunity for Arlington to put itself on the map.
“The Arlington airport has always sort of been at the center of my passions, and that's one of the things I realized when I ran for mayor is that we have a bifurcated city. I used to tell people at the time with this big opportunity called the Arlington airport in the center of it, but it didn't have much connection to people's everyday lives unless they were a pilot, or they had a job at the airport. You know, so we needed to help people make sense of that opportunity.”
Ever a high-achiever, Tolbert flew across the entire USA in 2003, just a year after getting her pilot's license. It is an adventure that presents its own unique set of challenges and experiences. In the context of a Mayor that has long championed the development of the airport and the Arlington Fly-In we asked Tolbert to tell us the story of her incredible journey.
“Flying makes you very patient and it makes you a good planner. You have to visualize and prepare for what's coming up and for every possibility. I flew across the country to purchase my first airplane. I flew to Pennsylvania and picked up somebody along the way from Missouri. I had done my research and not only was he a flight instructor, but he was also a certified aircraft and mechanic so he could inspect the airplane and make sure everything was okay. I took him along because it was in December, not the best time for flying across the country. I wanted that experience and that safety for somebody who could pilot through weather that I wasn't licensed to pilot through. But something happened the moment I signed the sales purchase agreement for the airplane - I determined I wanted to fly it across the United States. It was mine and he was welcome to come along for the ride, but I was going to pilot it.”
The journey quickly ran into obstacles, with the December weather in Pennsylvania leaving them grounded, waiting for a week for the weather to clear. The natural barrier of the Appalachian Mountains combined with a layer of ice fog in the atmosphere delayed onward progress, but Tolbert was more determined than ever to complete the journey.
“When the weather finally cleared, we planned a flight and I flew him back to Missouri, where I ended up staying for a week. We went out and flew the airplane and landed at all kinds of fields across the state. Grass fields, paved fields, short fields, long fields, just to get a feel for the airplane and then I realized, it was two days before Christmas. I had no idea! I was in my own world, completely 100% absorbed in this project and realized I had done nothing and then my family's probably wondering where I was. I found a place to leave the airplane in Missouri and flew commercial back to Seattle. And then just check the weather every day. And it was probably about three weeks later that I saw a clear enough path, I could fly over the Rockies and get it back to Arlington.”
Following such an epic adventure, Tolbert says that she doesn’t get to fly as often these days, and that flying is very much a skill that has to be practiced regularly, saying “The flying part, taking off and flying is always very easy. The hard part is always landing.” The global recession of 2008 hit communities all around the world, and Arlington was no different. Tolbert describes the scale of the recovery effort that the City needed when she became Mayor.
“I sold the plane after I became mayor. I thought the mayor was a part time job in this town, which is how it was categorized in City code, but it was 2012, kind of the end of the Great Recession. The city was in devastating financial condition. I can't even tell you how bad it was. They had used up all the reserve funds getting through that recession, and it needed a really good qualified financial plan to put the city back together. Quite a lot of work. So, after the first year of being mayor, I sold my airplane.”
One of the good news stories to come from the years following the 2008 recession was the emergence of the Arlington Fly-In as one of America’s biggest air shows. Tolbert began working with the organization as a volunteer but took a break in her time there when she took a paid position as a sales and marketing representative for a company in Alaska.
“I resigned my volunteer position with them, and the board decided they wanted to have a full time employee. So, they offered me the executive director job, which was probably financially, the worst job offer I've ever had. It wasn't a solid job offer, it was a six month contract and in order to pay me an appropriate wage, we'd have to raise sponsorships and grow the event and that worked and we went through an explosive period of growth . I started in 1994 and we went on to become the third largest recreation aviation event in the US.”
“I was very proud of that. And, I always tell people that's what gave me the experience, never being an elected office to be mayor. We had about 180 acres on a grass airport, and we had to develop a whole city that operated for five weeks. We had housing on site and camping, we had to have our own utility systems and transportation and waste management systems, and so that experience in planning that really gave me the depth of experience for a full service city position.”
Moving on from the business of flying for a moment, the City of Arlington has ambitious plans for the future - in particular there are a series of goals to be achieved in order to improve the urban environment and enhance the livability for residents. I asked Tolbert to shed a little light on these plans, and what the picture of success for the City looks like.
“We're well on our way to success with that. The first thing that we looked at was how do we give our residents the ability to live, work and play in their own city? We didn't have a lot of jobs to offer, but what we had was an immense amount of space around our airport, which, when it's zoned for industrial uses it can protect the airport's future. Instead of building a lot of housing to be a bedroom community, we needed to have a better range of assets in our community.
Shortly before I became mayor, I was one of the commissioners on the airport board and we developed a plan around a manufacturing center around the airport. And the goal was to bring in manufacturers, family wage jobs, so our students coming out of high school could find jobs in their own community. If you look at the US, the percentage of students who go on to higher education, isn't what we call a major success rate. Here in my own community, 40% of the kids coming out of our K through 12 system weren't moving into higher education in the first year, which is the only year they measure it.”
Outside of the airport, the City has lots of room to grow - with the City of Marysville neighbouring to the South they share around 4000 acres of land that is ripe for development. In order to make sure that young people see opportunities in the City, an industrial centre was desperately needed to attract businesses and create jobs. Tolbert explained how they have been able to take advantage of their location but also government initiatives to grow the City.
“Having access to the railroad and to the interstate very shortly, we would have all of the logistics companies would need to move in. With the Regional Planning Organization, which is an organization that develops land use and transportation plans for a four county region, had some designations for manufacturing industrial centers, that would give some advantages to the municipalities that were part of that. It would open up access to federal infrastructure funding federal highway dollars, so forth, but what they didn't have was policies that let us qualify to enter into that designation.
We worked hard with the Puget Sound Regional Council, and I was elected to their executive board to convince them that we needed to update these policies and they finally decided that was in their scope of work. With the growth in this whole region, it was time for them, I thought just to put a new lens on it. They went through a two-year study called a regional framework study. And at the end of that, they redid the policies about how you qualify to become a manufacturing industrial center, which gave us a pathway then to make that application and we formally got the designation last year.”
Tolbert and her team have wasted no time in putting their new designation to good use. Development “immediately exploded into a business expansion” in the City and has added over 3,000 advanced manufacturing jobs in the region over the last two years. She is keen to point out the diverse nature of the manufacturing that is coming to the City, and how they are looking to the local school graduates to ensure that they have the opportunity to gain the skills and experience to succeed in Arlington.
“Shortly after the Oso landslide, which happened when I was about two years into office at the end of the recession, and we're all trying to build back and so that was just another crunch to the financial plans to put the city back together. But so many partners came forward, we engaged with the higher education institutions, Washington State University's Metro Extension Center, and developed some long range plans for Arlington as an interesting city that I say is like having three stepchildren with very distinct personalities.
It has a downtown core, which we call an old town Arlington, small bricks and mortar, great place for entrepreneurs to start, a very walkable, kind of a heart and soul of the center of the community. It's the Civic Center really. Then we have the airport and the industrial lands around it, which is the Job Center. Then on the other side of that is the big box retail that highway, commercial type aspects to bring to it."
The lingering effects of the 2008 recession had barely receded when Arlington was hit by the Oso mudslide, Tolbert worked with local and state-wide organizations to get the City back on its feet.
"After the Oso slide, it was that downtown core that was suffering the effects of the recession and the effects of the lack of travel and people through the area. We worked with the Washington University State University Extension Center to build a resiliency program for small businesses. Because what I found out was that those businesses are born out of passion and desire, not necessarily a financial plan, or capital or long-term sustainability. And so those businesses have a much harder time weathering blips in the economy or natural disasters that might come. So we set about building some resiliency, we brought in a Small Business Development Center to do classes for entrepreneurs and strengthened our chamber in our downtown business association to make them more education-based to bring in the assets that merchants would need to take a longer look at their future.”
With the City finally looking to a bright future, and the Arlington Fly-In a fixture on the national aviators diaries, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world and threatened all of their good work. Tolbert says the City has escaped lightly, however, and there is much to be positive about.
“Because of the manufacturing industrial center from the city side of the revenues, I haven't seen the decline I anticipated to see because there's so much building and investment happening here right now. Land has continued to go, and businesses and manufacturers are still making plans to start up. So, I see that job base continuing but the construction activity right now is providing steady sales tax revenue to the city.
I have just re-engaged with the Washington State University's Extension Center to build some deeper resiliency plans for the downtown businesses. What happened after the Oso landslide and that recovery period is the businesses really embrace downtown as the Civic core of the city, and so it's a very family friendly place, a walkable community, and there would be tons of events every month that would bring lots of people to downtown. What I'm thinking about right now is with these extended effects of the pandemic, what's going to happen to the fourth quarter? I think the businesses could get through the first part of the shutdown, looking forward to those opening re-phases, reconfiguring their businesses, but now that's extending out - most businesses don't have the margins to shut down six to eight months.”
It is a story that will be familiar to many business owners operating in the downtown retail spaces across North America. The uncertain nature of the restrictions and people’s attitudes toward getting out and frequenting high traffic areas means it is very difficult for businesses to make solid plans for the future.
Tolbert’s passion for the City, and a genuine desire to improve the lives of the people in the community has led her and her team to introduce a number of initiatives to undo some of the damage done by the pandemic. Getting people out, and supporting local businesses is a win-win that she speaks earnestly to.
“What I'm trying to do with the Washington State University Extension has engaged the downtown businesses in innovation to find new ways of doing businesses that aren't dependent on large gatherings of people, which will be the last thing to come back. What do we need to help them with tools so they can pivot into a new marketplace? We've come up with some great ideas; we're going to start a video blog that will feature merchants and merchandise every week to take us through the holiday buying period of time. And this week, we're transforming a major Park downtown into an outdoor eatery that will team up with Uber Eats and Doordash for all the restaurants in the area to be able to deliver food to tables in the downtown Park.”
In the wider context of helping businesses succeed in Arlington and beyond, Tolbert refers to the Cascadia Innovation Corridor as still being in a “development and implementation” stage, and refers to some ‘strange politics’ around businesses engaging within the region. She speaks with a firm handle of what she is seeing both in Seattle and in the region as a whole. Closer to home, the Cascade Industrial Center - the shared region with the City of Marysville - is perfectly placed to profit from the increased trade over the Canadian border.
“One of the benefits that the Cascade Industrial Center has is the greenfield sites to be developed with infrastructure already in place but it's also a more economical land value right now. Myself and Mayor Nehring from Marysville were able to work with the state legislature to pass a bill a few years ago that gives some incentives, property tax incentives to new businesses that are developing in the area when they paid family wage jobs. When President Trump passed the Tax Act, and developed the opportunity zones, the Cascade Industrial Center was named as one of the opportunity zones. We've seen some significant investment in development there from the opportunity zones. There were four spots in the US that were getting 98% of the venture and investment capital. The opportunity zones offer investors some capital gains tax really, for investing in places that need more investment.”
The opportunity to attract investors with additional tax breaks has proved to have a huge impact on the City, with ‘about $80 million worth of investment’ into the City as a direct result of the Tax Act. It is just another landmark for Tolbert, who remains humble and grounded despite the transformation that the City has been through since she first entered politics as a City councillor, and later as Mayor.
“I've always been a little abhorrent of politics, to be honest with you. It was this foreign world out there, but I worked closely with the previous Mayor before me, Margaret Larson. I thought she did a wonderful job. Margaret was born and raised in Arlington, her husband had been Mayor at one time, and I thought she actually tapped me to run the medical services levy for the city and its partners. I engaged them at work and I really loved the planning part of it. Laying out a campaign, putting the messages together, training people how to knock on doors, I really enjoyed that work. I'm a people person, I guess.”
When the levies passed, they were successful. At the end of that, the previous mayor was up for re-election - it would have been her third term if she were going to run again. She had had some medical issues, so I knew she wasn't gonna be out there doing a normal campaign knocking on doors and things. I contacted her to see if I could help her with her campaign. I thought she was doing good things for the city and she saw its potential. And then somehow over a couple of months in that conversation, things flipped around. I checked with my family and it was like; ‘I'm okay, I'm used to walking into doors where I don't know everything’. I love the learning aspect. I did that when I took the job at the Fly-In and knew nothing about how many federal agencies and state agencies you had to coordinate with to run an event like this. That wasn't just the ground logistics but the air logistics and transportation routes and aerobatic boxes and things like that. That gave me such a great base of experience and I was not afraid to walk into where I didn't know things, and I could quickly learn them.”
Starting out as a volunteer for the Fly-In and working with the other volunteers there ‘getting boxes out of their basements or the trunks of their cars’ to put everything together, Tolbert understands what it takes to build something from the ground up. The organisation had been operating for ‘a couple of decades’ with no recognised office or official record-keeping before Tolbert came along.
We spoke to Mayor Tolbert just a week after the 2020 Arlington Fly-In had been scheduled to happen, which was cancelled along with a host of other events due to the COVID-19 restrictions. As someone so close to the organization, she spoke of how hard it was to make the decision to cancel the Fly-In.
“Our thought process around whether we would have the event this year or not, when we made the decision at the time, we're trying to make the decision on the board there things were going well in Washington and we were flattening the curve. But we had to pay attention to what was going on in the nation because so many people travel here from other areas, and then it was an outdoor event. We had to work with our suppliers, our tents and our porta potties. How could we ensure sanitation on a regular basis through the high touchpoints? It was too many unknowns and then just too many hurdles for what science knew at the time.”
On a lighter note, the future of the City is bright, and Mayor Tolbert has worked proactively to get the next generation involved by starting a youth council to promote engagement. She also had a few words of advice for young people who want to serve others by getting into politics.
“Every year kids from middle school through high school can apply. What I always recommend for young people is to let your voice be heard whether you desire to go into politics or not. Everybody like me who has an elected position in a city in a county anywhere, we're here to serve our constituents and their voices are important. And that youth voice is particularly important because you don't hear it often unless something goes terribly wrong. None of us want to be in a position where we're always reactive and fixing something that went wrong. It's so much better to have that depth of information as we're making policies and making plans. It's so important for the youth of the community to speak up.
If you want to get into politics, and particularly when you're young, think about your skill set, and throw out everything you see on the news and on TV, and what you read about politicians. I wouldn't let that lens or that filter color. If you want to serve people you have a deep desire to make something better and you think you have something that gives you the validity to have a seat at the table, focus on that. Leave the drama and leave the issues with people and ideology aside. Focus on what you can actually achieve and then ask and have touch point questions for yourself. Every decision has unintended consequences. Have as broad of a network as you can.”
You can find out more about Mayor Tolbert and the City of Arlington here: http://Arlingtonawaits.com