Federal Way is looking to bring some branch-campus competition to the South Sound.
Roughly 10 miles as the crow flies from the University of Washington Tacoma, the south King County city is courting UW’s rival: Washington State University.
“I think the opportunity to have a Pac-12 research and land grants institution would just be transformative for Federal Way,” Mayor Jim Ferrell told The News Tribune this week.
Ferrell, a former UW Husky football player, isn’t necessarily determined to have Cougar crimson and gray flying in the city’s core. He’s also talked with Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities about opening a campus. But discussions with WSU have progressed the furthest, he said.
Late WSU President Elson Floyd visited the city to meet with Ferrell. So has his successor, interim President Daniel Bernardo.
Federal Way recently commissioned a $75,000 study to determine whether enough demand exists to support a campus in the city of 92,700 people.
A WSU official confirmed the school has talked with city leaders, but everything is preliminary.
“Both sides have agreed that we can’t move in any direction or make any decision until the data is there,” said Dave Cillay, WSU vice president for academic outreach and innovation.
Results from the city-commissioned study will dictate how to proceed, he said.
Before discussions get too far along, UWT officials say they also want a seat at the table.
“We certainly want to explore what their desires are, what’s driving them and how we could serve that,” UWT spokesman Michael Wark said. “UWT is a force for economic development in the South Sound region, and Federal Way is certainly part of that.”
Roughly one-quarter of UWT’s students hail from south King County, he said.
“Federal Way high schools are among our biggest feeder high schools anywhere,” Wark said. “We have a deep partnerships with these schools.”
UWT leaders recently learned about the city’s plans and hope to speak with its leaders soon, Wark said.
If the study results show a campus would work in Federal Way, the Legislature would need to establish it. The earliest that could happen would be the 2017-18 session, Ferrell said.
WSU already has branch campuses in Everett, Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane. It is also developing a partnership with Bellevue College to bring the former community college into its academic fold.
UW has branches in Tacoma and Bothell.
Initially, Federal Way leaders talked about trying to locate a school at the soon-to-be-empty Weyerhaeuser campus east of Interstate 5. The timber company wants to sell the 430-acre site as part of its plan to relocate to Seattle’s Pioneer Square in 2016.
“I don’t think that’s in the cards,” Ferrell said of having a college at the Weyerhaeuser site, citing a high purchase price and transportation challenges.
City leaders instead are eyeing a 21-acre area identified as its planned Town Center not far from South 320th Street and Pacific Highway South.
A campus would fit nicely on city-owned land near the 4-acre Town Square Park, Ferrell said. A performing arts center is nearing construction across the street, and the city hopes to see a mix of residential and retail built on part of the site.
Federal Way officials have talked for a few years about attracting a four-year university to the city. They approached WSU, and the other universities, with the idea.
“I think that a university in the downtown Federal Way area would be a real draw for folks, especially those who can’t make it up to Seattle or to UW Tacoma,” Ferrell said.
Two community colleges also serve the area: Highline Community College to the north in Des Moines and Green River Community College to the east in Auburn.
If a four-year university were to come to Federal Way, city leaders would collaborate with the community colleges and local school districts and business leaders, City Councilwoman Kelly Maloney said.
City leaders have floated the idea that a campus would initially offer junior- and senior-level courses for community college students to complete four-year degrees.
UWT opened under a similar “two plus two” model before expanding to offer freshman- and sophomore-level courses.
Citing the effect UW Tacoma had on downtown Tacoma over its 25-year history, Ferrell said Federal Way leaders have a similar vision of “vibrancy and activity.”