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October 25, 2013 at 6:00 AM
Will the next Jim Ellis please step forward?
Seattle’s most prolific civic crusader is 92. He no longer drives, so we talked city history this week at his kitchen table. To meet this humble visionary is to receive a windfall of wisdom.
Ellis has played a vital role in shaping our region’s heritage, from the cleanup of Lake Washington in the 1950s to the formation of Metro and founding of “Forward Thrust,” a series of bold bond measures in 1968 that created the Kingdome, parks and trails, public swimming pools, fire departments, sewage districts, neighborhood improvement, arterial highways and a youth service center. In the 1980s, he led efforts to develop the convention center in downtown Seattle. By the 1990s, Ellis was still active, helping to create the Mountains to Sound Greenway.
“I don’t like the ‘I’ word,” he says emphatically throughout our two-hour visit. All those efforts “were very much a committee thing. It’s fascinating to see how everything we’ve undertaken, when we had far-sided leadership — and were willing to pay for the bill — has met expectations and is serving us well today.”
How did this private man — an attorney who never ran for or held office — manage to shape Seattle in such lasting and profound ways?
“A lot of work and sensitive listening,” he responds. “Citizens have the capacity to do things. They don’t have to be officials.”
(Ellis also credits his late wife, Mary Lou, and their children for tolerating his civic schedule.)
The “Forward Thrust” initiative, for instance, brought together 200 community members. Ellis says stakeholders met regularly to hash out their differences and to find compromise. Though voters passed seven of 12 “Forward Thrust” bond measures in 1968, they rejected an effort to build a regional rapid transit system. Federal funds that would have paid for 90 percent of the project, Ellis remembers with disappointment, went to Atlanta.
We’ve been stuck with a piecemeal approach to transportation projects ever since.
“The truth is we couldn’t afford not to do it,” he says. “If we’d done it in 1968 as a complete system, it would have been paid for by now and the basic system would have been in place twenty years ago, and far more extensive than what we have now.” (more…)