Connecting state and local government leaders
Video interview: As the executive director the state's Department of Enterprise Services, Chris Liu proved reducing costs, enhancing a local community and building trust can all go hand-in-hand.
Like many states, Washington had founded major state hospitals to house the mentally ill through the better part of the 20th century. As the country moved from institutionalization of those in need of mental health treatment to localized treatment, federal funding went away and major mental health facilities across the country were shuttered.
Such was the case just outside the 10,000-person town of Sedro-Woolley, Washington, where Northern State Hospital—once the largest hospital in the state, employing over 1,000 people and home to over 2,700 patients—has sat largely dormant since it was shuttered in 1973.
But that is about to change. Through force of will, a coalition of state and local government leaders have forged a way forward to give Northern State Hospital a new life in the 21st century as a technology innovation and research center.
Northern State Hospital’s 225-acre grounds boast an impressive pedigree. The landscape was designed by the Olmsted brothers, best known for their work on major city park systems and prestigious universities across the United States. In fact, the hospital was one of the largest landscape designs the Olmsted firm undertook. The bucolic landscape is dotted with Spanish revival buildings by prominent architects, many listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Like other institutions in its day, it was originally intended to create a retreat closed off from the world—a self-contained environment that was supposed to be a refuge for the mentally ill. “It was a completely self-sufficient hospital,” Christopher Liu, executive director of Washington’s Department of Enterprise Services. “It grew its own food, it had its own cattle, it had its own piggery, it had its own ZIP code, it had its own rail stop.”
“The site itself is a jewel of Skagit County that many people don’t know anything about,” Patricia “Patsy” Botsford-Martin, the executive director for the Port of Skagit, said. “It’s a private campus ... the public is not allowed access to it.”
Northern State Hospital’s main campus is open to only a handful federal and state government entities that maintained small offices on the campus (ranging from the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Labor to the Washington State’s Military Department), along with a small behavioral health facility. While the leases cover day-to-day operating expenses, capital improvements and key repairs have historically been deferred and unfunded.
Despite the best efforts of a small grounds crew, much of the campus was returning to nature and the historic buildings were in disrepair.
A New Perspective
Prior to joining public service in 2001, Liu was planning on retirement. He was sitting on an impressive 30-year private sector career that included franchising small businesses, working with venture capitalists, and helping Walmart grow internationally.
“My wife actually had other ideas,” Liu joked. She steered him toward public service and instead of enjoying downtime, Liu found a position with Washington’s state government changing the business model of the state liquor stores’ retail and the distribution systems, which he described as a "dream job."
Bringing foundational private sector practices and his knowledge of distribution to a public retail space, in a matter of years the state's retail sales “went from 199 million dollars … to roughly over 400 million dollars,” according to Liu. “Previous to that we were doing one percent to two percent year over year for our 73-year history.”
After working in several roles, including running the state lottery and Office of Minority and Women's Business Enterprises, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Liu as executive director of the Department of Enterprise Services in 2013.
At the time, Liu asked his staff for the “three biggest problems we have to solve” and dealing with the Northern State Hospital campus was labelled as a top priority. They went to work immediately.
Finding a Common Vision
The state had attempted to sell the property several times unsuccessfully, and a diverse set of interests in the region had become increasingly frustrated by the 40-year absence of a plan for what once was a major economic driver. The nearby town of Sedro-Woolley, the local Port of Skagit, Skagit County, and the Upper Skagit Tribe all saw the potential for the campus and sought a voice in its future.
According to Botsford-Martin, the local governments saw the property as an opportunity to be “a repurposed economic engine for east county.”
“In years past when Northern State Hospital was up and running, it provided many, many good jobs for east county and that’s the hope for the site—many more of those good jobs, as well as opening the campus again,” Botsford-Martin said. “Many people in the local community have fond memories of being out there, and we hope we can open it up like we would a college campus.”
“As we started to look at why these projects never worked out it’s because like the saying ‘all politics are local’—well, all solutions are also local,” explained Liu.
Liu leaned on his international negotiations experience and focused on tactics where “we would address each other’s interests instead of addressing our own interests” as a starting point, bringing everyone to the table in an attempt to find a common solution.
“He convened a roundtable—literally a roundtable—for all of us to sit around the table and find out what our interest in the site was and what we wanted to do,” Botsford-Martin said. Liu challenged them to come up with a “synergistic proposal of how we would work together to make a different future for the site.”
“I did tell them I wasn’t there to be a referee between the four governments,” Liu remarked. “The governments had to come up with a single solution that they all could support and I would support whatever they came up with.”
As trust built between the parties, a common vision began to form. The local governments distilled their needs down to five goals, and from there built out a strategic plan. The port would take the lead on the development and management once the land transferred, with support from the other local entities and the state. Liu helped the community find funding for an adaptive re-use study in 2015, which led to the opening of a path to move forward together.
Finding a common vision was the result of meetings over three years with a federal delegation, the governor’s office, state legislators, the tribe, three local governments, nine state agencies, seven tenant organizations, non-profits, private businesses, community groups and many, many public meetings.
Fast forward to today, and these partners have found a route forward that they believe will bring 600 to 1,000 jobs in the near-term, along with sustainable growth in the long-term.
A keystone of the project is the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow, or SWIFT, technology campus. The SWIFT technology campus will be an innovation and clean technology center for the region. It is the result of a public-private partnership with Janicki Bioenergy, which is doing innovative work with its “omniprocessor,” which turns human biowaste—think sewer sludge—into clean water, electricity, and an ash that can be used in industrial processes. It’s cutting edge work, with strong buzz for its economic, ethical and social applications—Bill Gates drinking the clean water from the omniprocessor has been watched 3.2 million times on YouTube.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Cascades Job Corps College & Career Academy, already located on the property, will turn its attention directly to information technology training, hopefully creating the sort of multiplying effect necessary to build out a niche tech sector in the area. According to Liu, other talks are ongoing with private interests to build entertainment and other uses on the site, including a distillery.
The local governments, working in partnership with the state and current leaseholders, have found success that they wouldn’t have found otherwise. “With limited resources and with those public dollars getting more and more scarce, this sort of a process and project of collaboration and really finding ways to do things together is the name of the game.”
The impact of the communal effort is much more far reaching than simply economic growth and cost savings to the state, though. Namely, the trust built between the port, county, municipality, and tribe will give them the ability to tackle other problems.
“It got to be a really friendly relationship,” Liu said. “The real effect of this whole thing is they started working out their other problems.”
Botsford-Martin agrees. “It’s been incredibly significant. By working together and having monthly meetings—the city, the port, and the county—we have developed a relationship, and a partnership, and a collaboration that has not been seen before in Skagit County. I think that it’s a new model for what can be done, and as a matter of fact in fact we are using this model in a different way to work on broadband for the valley overall.”
The driver of the local relationship, though, in Botsford-Martin’s eyes, was very clear. “The partnership—the city, the port, and the county representatives—acknowledge that Chris Liu and Anne Sweeney (his special assistant) have been the leaders in this process. If they hadn’t come together and asked us to work together in a collaborative manner, I don’t think this project would be where it is. If we had tried to go through traditional negotiations, it would not have happened. Our relationship with the state is light-years beyond what it was in the past, and I attribute that to Chris Liu and Anne Sweeney.”
“I wish I could work with them every day.”
Mitch Herckis is the Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.