At first glance, a cannabis store operator and a former banker turned mini-storage owner seem like polar opposites.
On a policy level, that holds true for Steve Lee and Bill McKay. Kennewick voters recently voted the two men onto the city council this past election.
Lee offers an expansive view of the city’s role in the community, while McKay believes the city should keep its focus on essential services such as police and fire.
But as different as they are, they bring a shared entrepreneurial spirit and a common desire to promote Kennewick as a destination for people with big ideas. They agree on that much.
“He is a businessman,” McKay said of Lee, who owns five businesses, including the Green2Go cannabis stores in Finley and Tokio.
“I may not agree on the business he’s in, but I would hope we’re pretty close on doing things in the city that promote growth and jobs. I would think we would be pretty close to the same on those types of things.”
Lee believes he unseated incumbent Greg Jones, chief financial officer at Hanford, by appealing to the same business-leaning voters who supported McKay. He can’t wait to dive into election results to confirm his suspicion that he drew from a libertarian base.
Bill Berkman, chair of the Benton County Republican Party, was intrigued by the common ground between the two. The party endorsed McKay and took no position in Lee’s race.
“I look forward to seeing how each approaches their new role,” he said.
One of the new council’s first tasks will be to choose which member will represent Kennewick as mayor for the next two years. The mayor’s job is mostly ceremonial but the mayor makes critical committee assignments. Steve Young has held the post since 2009.
Neither Lee nor McKay intends to make a big splash when they’re seated, each intending to start by learning the city ropes.
I may not agree on the business he’s in, but I would hope we’re pretty close on doing things in the city that promote growth and jobs.
McKay indicated he has reservations about Young, Kennewick’s second longest-serving mayor, following an $8 million jury verdict against him and Mission Support Alliance in a case involving retaliation and discrimination
“It concerns me,” McKay admitted.
Down to business
Both Lee and McKay have built successful, local businesses from the ground up and are the council’s only entrepreneurs.
Lee and his wife own two marijuana retail stores, as well as an ATM business, Gourmet Grub Bus and, as of this month, the gas station and RV park at the Interstate 90 Tokio exit. As a child, Lee worked for his father, who had several businesses in downtown Kennewick.
Lee said he was forced into opening businesses. An indifferent student, he worked for the chamber of commerce and for the Reach before being laid off when budgets were cut. Lacking a degree, he said couldn’t find a job that would pay a living wage.
Green2Go now employs 50.
McKay was raised on a dairy farm in Idaho and changed careers when the finances of the industry no longer made sense to him. He moved to Washington as a cost accountant for IBP meat packing and later worked as a commercial lender.
He developed and owns 27th Avenue Self Storage in Kennewick, making him one of few elected leaders to take a commercial project through the permitting process, an experienced he described as challenging.
Let this be the place you do your risky startup.
Both say Kennewick’s future rests on its relationship with business.
McKay sees room to improve the building permitting process. In developing his 93,000-square-foot self storage business, McKay said he sometimes felt he was in a fight with the city over permitting.
Those who are investing their “blood, sweat and tears” into Kennewick businesses deserve respect. Most get it, but McKay said he will push for a more seamless process to allay concerns.
“I want to address those,” he said.
Lee campaigned on a similar platform, saying he wants young adults to launch their businesses in Kennewick — not Seattle or Portland.
“Let this be the place you do your risky start-up,” he said.
The two also agree Kennewick needs to broadcast its city council sessions and other meetings. Richland and Pasco both do but Kennewick shied away in the past because of the perceived costs.
McKay prioritizes police, fire and roads and said he will be hostile to new taxes.
He pledged to bring his financial acumen to bear on the city’s budget. He will be a likely ally of the council’s most conservative member, John Trumbo, when it comes to the cost of doing business.
“When 80 percent of the budget is wages and payroll, that doesn’t leave much for city services,” he said.
McKay indicated he’s particularly concerned about the condition of the city’s roads and streets and finding money to maintain them.
“I’m not afraid to make cuts,” he said.
I’m not here to secretly push my jazz cabbage agenda.
Lee ran on a more expansive platform that emphasized investment in the sorts of amenities that attract young adults and families.
From the start, he has said he is not interested in pushing Kennewick to reverse its ban on legal cannabis stores. Pushing the issue would just use of whatever political capital he gained from the election and leave him powerless to “do good” for the rest of his term.
“I’m not here to secretly push my jazz cabbage agenda,” he joked.
In one notable contract, Lee and McKay were on opposites sides of The Link, the Kennewick Public Facilities District’s failed sales tax request to fund $45 million in upgrades to the Three Rivers Convention Center, Toyota Center and related facilities.
McKay teamed with Trumbo to oppose it, calling the plan an inappropriate expansion of government and an unwelcome new tax.
Lee was a steadfast Link supporter, calling it the sort of cultural amenity the city needs to attract and keep young people. He was openly disappointed that it failed by a wide margin.
We need to know what’s going on. We need to know where the money is going. ... I do plan to get to the bottom of it.
The failure leaves the city council with at least one thorny challenge.
The city owns Toyota Center, home to the Tri-City Americans hockey franchise. As it approaches its 30th year, Toyota Center has gained a reputation for being one of the worst venues in the Western Hockey League, which has given a September 2019 deadline to upgrade the arena to its standards for player safety ad fan experience.
“We need to know what’s going on,” said McKay. “We need to know where the money is going. We need to know how much the management group is being paid. We need to see what fees are being charged. I do plan to get to the bottom of it.”
Lee is discouraged at the center’s deterioration.
“We need to step up and fix it,” he said.
Unofficial returns from the Nov. 7 election give McKay a 400-vote lead over rival Christy Watts in the contest to replace Bob Parks.
With only 776 ballots left to count in all of Benton County, the odds of a reversal are vanishingly small. McKay prefers to wait until the election is certified on Tuesday to claim victory.
Lee ran a highly visible campaign funded by profits from his businesses and defeated Jones with 57 percent of the vote.
Barring a reversal, Lee and McKay will take office in January. Incumbents Don Britain and John Trumbo, who were both re-elected, will be sworn in to new terms, as well.