It’s time to take a fresh look at Lacey, soon to be Thurston County’s biggest city

Olympia’s civic identity is that it’s the state capital, and has the only downtown of our three-city region. Tumwater’s identity is centered on its brewery history (and, we hope, micro-brew future).

But what about Lacey? It’s harder to pin down. Is it more than suburban sprawl, bedroom community, and housing for military families rotating through JBLM?

Whatever Lacey is, it’s time to reckon with the fact that it is now within a thousand people of surpassing Olympia in population. Because of its fast growth and huge urban growth boundary, it is clearly destined to be the largest city in Thurston County. So this might be a good time to take a fresh look at it.

According to Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder, it was Olympia’s annexation of parts of Lacey that led to voter approval of Lacey’s incorporation as a city in 1966. Its residents emphatically did not want to be part of Olympia.

Their independent-minded civic identity was deeply rooted. The core of Lacey – originally known as Woodland – dates back to settlers Isaac and Catherine Wood, who settled there in 1853.

In the late 19th century it was served by a railroad station that brought families to thriving lake resorts. It was also a farm and logging town, and, starting in 1895, home to what is now Saint Martin’s University. Early in the last century, it was also home to an ambitious horse racing track that never quite succeeded, but lives on in local historical lore.

In 1966 – the same year it incorporated – the first enclosed shopping mall in western Washington opened in Lacey. That might have become the core of a real downtown if the city had agreed to its developer’s desire to build adjacent multi-story housing and mixed use developments, but when the city resisted, the developer threw in the towel.

Now, Lacey has multiple not-quite-urban centers: one full of big box and chain stores and vast, warehouse-like distribution centers at Hawks Prairie, one on Sleater Kinney between Pacific and Martin Way, and another on Yelm Highway and College Street.

But it’s the historical, original neighborhood near Pacific and Carpenter Roads that Mayor Ryder regards as the beating heart of Lacey, and it is near there that an expanded historical museum and replica of the original train station will be built near the Woodland Trail. Until now, that historic center of Lacey has been rather obscure to outsiders.

But even if Lacey never has a downtown center, it has a compelling, complex civic identity that arguably surpasses other local cities in vitality.

A big part of that vitality stems from the fact that Lacey is far more ethnically diverse than Olympia or Tumwater. The city is now about 25 percent people of color; its student population is about 50 percent kids of color. Its longstanding black community includes local civil rights pioneers such as Barbara and (former mayor) Virgil Clarkson and Thelma and Nate Jackson.

Lacey is home to a truly beautiful mosque, surrounded by a Cambodian community that dates from the end of the Vietnam war. And it’s home to a thriving Korean-American community and a wide variety of other Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern and Native people.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Lacey has taken over hosting an annual ethnic festival that used to be held in Olympia.

Lacey’s gratitude to the diverse people who serve in the military is evident in its pride in the Veterans Service Hub that offers housing, education and an array of other services.

Parks, ball fields, and publicly accessible school swimming pools are also points of civic pride in Lacey. And the close relationship between the city and the North Thurston Public Schools showcases the kid-focused, future-oriented nature of a city that also hosts a growing number of retirement communities.

What all this adds up to is a different way of thinking about what makes a coherent, cohesive community. It’s less about a centering core, and more about a confederation of neighborhoods and multiple commercial centers that share a history, an independent spirit, and a high level of comfort with newness and expansion. It’s not better or worse than Olympia or Tumwater, it’s just different. And about to be bigger.