Joining others of like mind and working on a shared goal is a hallmark of what it means to be human. In many of our pursuits, there are ready-made organizations: from Tai Chi to Rotary, we seek out others who seem to be pursuing important work, and we join in. Sometimes, if the organization does not exist, we must make it. So it was with the Carnegie Group.
The Carnegie Group grew out of some frustrations that residents of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater were experiencing at the end of the 20th century. What follows is the first of a three-part story of how this very local and spontaneous group developed and grew. We will cover successes and failures and conclude with a picture of where we are as we begin the 3rd decade of the new century.
The cast of characters
This look back begins with interviews with those who were there in the beginning; people like Jim Weber, Walt Jorgensen, Stephen Langer, Anne Buck, Linda and Lanny Carpenter and Ken Filak. Some we could not interview were also there from the start: people like Bernie Friedman and Herb Legg, Eve Johnson, Jerry Parker and Gene Dzeidzic. This series is as much a tribute to those who have passed as to those who are still in the fight today.
The Carnegie Group’s origin story has several threads. According to Linda Carpenter, the Group grew out of early frustrations about being heard in opposition to plans for LOTT water utility. Jim Weber cited even earlier concerns about a large development planned in what is today protected areas at Woodland Creek. Bob Jacobs recalls success in quashing plans for a convention center in Olympia. Jerry Parker’s work showing how, in the absence of impact fees, the task of educating a growing number of students would affect school budgets, also served to motivate a change.
All the recollections share one fact: Carnegie Group began as a Monday evening meeting, and has continued as a meeting every Monday since, uninterrupted. The name comes from the earliest meetings, which were held in the Carnegie Library after it was sold and converted to a coffee shop and bookstore in the 1990s.
Minimum protocol, maximum commitment
It was a common cause that sparked this assembly every Monday, yet if you asked individuals, then as now, you’d get an array of answers. Anne Buck says it is because this group put action before protocol. To this day, there is no such thing as a “member” of Carnegie Group. All those who attend regularly are seen as equals (eventually, a board was designated, but that comes in part 2).
The meeting did ask that you put a dollar on the table–testimony to your seriousness of purpose. Jim Weber says the glue was a common belief in protecting the environment, but Bob Jacobs would say that’s too narrow. Bob insists the overriding purpose is broader — good government itself. He may have a point, as most in the group have either run for office, held elected positions or worked on a campaign.
Responding to challenges
But whether the Carnegie Group is primarily a watchdog, a banner carrier, a squeaky wheel, or a whistleblower, Carnegie Group made a name for itself, right from the beginning. Carnegie became known as a liberal response to the changes happening in Olympia and the local area. By the election of 2002, some joked that to be endorsed for local office by the Carnegie Group was the kiss of death.
Compared to today it may seem tame, but those were challenging times. Downtown Olympia had lost its way. As anticipated, new malls on the Westside and in Lacey had drawn shoppers away from downtown. JC Penney closed its downtown store. But there was a new generation of business people and they opened eateries like Crackers and Urban Onion that drew regulars to the city’s center. The Voyeur was new and trendy. Batdorf and Bronson moved to larger space across the street from its initial hole-in-the-wall. The newly built Washington Center began to change the feel of downtown Olympia.
Other changes were not so welcome. There was a shift in where new housing was going in, moving from inside city limits, out to the county. It seemed the developers flowed to wherever they could make money, not to where there was the greatest need. Construction of housing in a previously undeveloped area would trigger a demand for services like electric power lines, and schools and EMT. Providing those services required money from the existing tax base in support of these new developments. Such changes were the stuff of discussion at Carnegie Group, which began to draw in more people. “Growth should pay for Growth” was a rallying cry that energized the group… the bumper stickers are still to be had for $1.00.
Preserving the environment
Jim Weber points to some real Carnegie Group successes. Confronted with a large golf course and houses in 340 acres of Woodland Creek basin, the regular Monday meetings allowed opponents to track every step of the review process. Keeping up with the Environmental Impact Statement; filing timely public comments, and following up with City Manager Greg Cuio, kept pressure on to preserve the wilderness. Today that area is a County Park serving to preserve wildlife in an increasingly crowded peninsula. Steve Langer recalls that Carnegie put pressure on LOTT to develop only as quickly as population pressure, acknowledging “build it and they will come” works with more than transportation.
More to come
Who did Carnegie Group back for local office? How did they manage to put on forums and influence elections with a shifting group of followers that refused to call themselves members? And what about the Convention Center plans? Read the answers to these questions in the next installment.
Zena Hartung raised an Evergreen student and was one as well. She has long ties to Carnegie Group, Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team and League of Women Voters Thurston County.