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Cook is 'professional volunteer'
In the city of North Bend, few women work as hard as Tonie Cook. Her boss, Mayor Ken Hearing, describes her as a "professional volunteer," a tireless public servant who works diligently as the city's management analyst and does double duty as its unofficial special projects manager.
"I mean literally, if someone needs something done, Tonie's the one who says, 'I'll take care of it,'" Hearing said. "Her job here entails doing a lot of the things that otherwise fall between the cracks."
North Bend City Administrator George Martinez agrees.
"Her official title is management analyst, [but she does] many other things," Martinez said. He said her efforts are crucial in reaching out to the residents and business owners of the city, especially in the historic district.
Hired in 2000 by then-mayor Joan Simpson, Cook has earned a reputation as an exceptionally hard-working member of the city's staff. Her current responsibilities include acting as the city's liaison to the Economic Development Commission (EDC), which is composed of seven local small business owners, as well as writing the city's emergency management plan and helping draw up a water conservation plan, a vital step in getting North Bend's water rights.
Cook has worked with the EDC to put together the economic development chapter in the city's comprehensive plan. The compilation of the document using largely "in-house" assistance was a significant achievement for the city, and Cook had a large hand in helping make that happen, Hearing said.
"The job that she and/or they did together was quite phenomenal," said Hearing, who mentioned that many cities have to hire an outside consultant to come in and take care of similar tasks. He also said that Cook and the EDC did a far better job than any outside consultant could have done. Other small cities are now borrowing heavily from North Bend's plan and its format, both of which owe a great deal to the efforts of Cook, who is very modest about her job.
"I love talking about North Bend," she said.
Working at restoring the historic district with business owners in the downtown area is a big part of her work, Cook said. Formerly, Sunset Highway (U.S. 10) flowed through North Bend's downtown on its way over the pass, but after it was replaced by Interstate-90 in the 1970s, the historic district took an economic hit. The town's downtown business owners then tried to mimic Leavenworth with a "Bavarian mountain village" look in an attempt to revitalize business, with some examples still remaining in a few of the store facades. Now, efforts are being made to return the historic downtown area to its older, more historic appearance.
To that end, the city gives out grants and works with an architect and owners to give businesses "facelifts." Much of Cook's work centers around this process of historic preservation and restoration.
Although the EDC initially focused its efforts on the historic district, it has since expanded those efforts to include the whole city. In addition to the chapter in the comprehensive plan, Cook and the EDC set up a community economic summit in May 2003 as a way of getting on the same page with the city's small business owners.
"What the summit did in 2003 was ... it confirmed that we want to be a small town," Cook said. "We do have rural character, and we want to maintain that. We do want some growth, but we want [appropriate] growth. That was really affirming to the vision of the town and of thinking about the next process."
A third element of Cook and the EDC's work has been a thorough market analysis of North Bend. The analysis is designed to examine methods to support existing businesses and look for the types of businesses the city needs to promote and invite to the area.
The EDC is currently working on a market analysis based on a model program by the University of Wisconsin that small communities can use. The analysis was based partly on several surveys, including one to visitors, residents and business owners, and should be ready in January.
This proactive approach to maintaining a balance of growth and city services is at the heart of what Cook does, and since most of the city's general fund is from retail and business (as much as 60-70 percent), it is more important than ever to harmonize the needs of both residents and business owners.
Other components of her job involve water conservation, with the planning, program and execution of conservation tied to the city's water rights, as well as planning for emergency services.
"We're not an informal response agency anymore," Cook said. "We have to perform a lot of functions. It used to be just volunteers. They knew what to do because our town was so small."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, emergency preparedness is in the spotlight.
"If we had a flood and we had a lot of damage, we would have had to have become compliant with certain things to get that money, [and] have things in place," Cook said. "And that's what Katrina's all about. Did they have their zoning in place? Did they have their plans in place?
"Everyone's watching that, because we have so many controls and things in place ... if you don't have this in compliance, then you won't get money," Cook said.
This intrinsic interest in working with people to solve complicated problems comes largely from her background. Raised in the North Bend area of coastal Oregon, Cook grew up in a populous household.
"I am from a family of nine children, right in the middle, and so I think that's where I learned about group processes and involving people," she said. "I guess we could create things out of nothing. My best friends were my family."
During the 1970s, she was involved with social work in Oregon as a department head in a food stamp program. She moved to North Bend, Wash., in 1985, where she started working for the Snoqualmie Valley School District. She also started volunteering heavily with the school system.
"That really was a driver for me. That's where my heart was ... education, that seems to be a real basis of democracy, and I really have that ideal about who I am and the belief system that the more educated we are, the freer we are [as] a people."
She went back to school to get her bachelor's degree in public administration from Antioch University in Seattle in 1988.
The district was going through a challenging phase at that time, with only three elementary schools to serve a growing Valley, she said. She worked on 12 to 14 levies and bond measures to shore up the district and get it some needed support. While she volunteered, she worked part time for the school district while simultaneously going back to college to get her degree.
She worked for the school district until 1993, when she was hired as the first executive director of the Snoqualmie Valley Youth Hub. She worked for the Hub part time up until 1998, and it was this experience that led her to work for the local city government.
Her grown-up son Ian is also involved in small-town government, having recently been hired and now working as a planner for the city of Klamath Falls in southern Oregon. A graduate of the University of Washington, he is following in his mother's footsteps.
"I think that he's learning slowly [that] community is a part of who he is, and maybe he's doing what his mom has laid her life out to be and it keeps coming back," Cook said.
"I feel like I'm doing the most important work that someone could do," she said. "The fact that I get to live here, as well ... I couldn't think of anything better to be doing with my life.
"We need to be building on the assets of North Bend, which are very visible with the beautiful natural surroundings, but another most significant asset is its people and the contribution of their value to what is most important for the city of North Bend's future. The democratic process is messy, but very worthwhile, and I appreciate being a participant with both the business community and our residents."