Q & A WITH ROBERT THOMS
TWA members and others are talking to writer Sharon Babcock about enduring inspirations, life
lessons, and perspectives from their experiences on the working waterfront.
This month is the 13th installment in the series: Robert Thoms, Tacoma City Councilman for District 2
which encompasses Commencement Bay. In his address to a recent TWA meeting, Robert Thoms’
mantra was, “Be brief, be brilliant, and be gone.” He routinely asks how government can either enhance
what the private sector is doing or get out of its way, and how government can be a good
partner to help us understand what our core competencies are so that we can do more. He
views Tacoma’s waterfront as the largest part of the quality of life equation and the reason most
people who live here are here.
Thoms, appointed to the city council in 2012 and elected last November, also considers
Tacoma’s waterfront the most underdeveloped in the state; vibrant yet not functioning on all
cylinders. “We’re going to grow, the waterfront is going to be utilized, and Tacoma has not
thought much about that. It will take thinking long-term and changing our horizon line from the
kitchen table … to a broader vision.”
Q: What is most on your mind these days?
A: Related to the waterfront, right now it is to help clarify the size of the buffer zone for
watercraft that will be approaching the 115th U.S. Open Championship Golf Tournament at
Chambers Bay (next year). (It’s) how Tacoma best prepares for visitors who will pass through
town or use its services and amenities on their way to University Place for that event. When our
region goes global for this event, can vessels anchor close to shore or perhaps tie to a temporary
Unrelated to the tournament, I think about how we best create amenities that serve our own
people first and the large and small businesses that are here, about not settling for less than our
citizens deserve in water access, family friendly spaces, and food—amenities that put people at
ease. People have a pride and recognize that they are fortunate to live in this place because of
the water. Extending that to first-time visitors is critical. I need to know what types of
challenges citizens and business are running into and how our regulatory structures help or
hinder that, for example what it takes to set up a sidewalk café. Legislation either fixes or harms
something. In a healthy regulatory environment, we need a good balance. It is important that
government is aware of ripple effects and that we create a regulatory environment that sends a
clear message that we’re open for business here, that we are agile and not stodgy.
Q: What are the issues?
A: Just because Tacoma is not the event host for the golf tournament, we still need answers to
things like determining the watercraft buffer zone, parking, signage, and making sure businesses
know what to expect. I see the event as a way to assess where the community was in 2013
when planning began and where we want to be in 2015. We have a better understanding now
than before that this involves larger aspirations that will benefit the region much after the
tournament is over—beautification of streets, way-finding signs, busing, pothole fixes, an
incorporation of the Downtown Merchants Group into what is happening at Chambers Bay. It is
a great test to see if we can put it all together by a fixed date and track what difference it makes
to businesses. If we do it right, it won’t be the last time we’ll attract a major event.
Q: How did you come to your attraction to the waterfront?
A: I was an active duty Navy officer for five years and currently serve as a Navy reservist,
reporting for duty once a month. Currently we are doing an exercise called RIMPAC, with 20
nations participating to practice interoperability between Pacific Rim armed forces as a means
of promoting stability in the region to the benefit of all participating nations, including the
Chinese for the first time. It is the largest maritime exercise in the world and is described by the
Navy as a training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative
relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s
oceans. The Navy has made an invaluable investment in me. Now I’m investing in them through
public service. My experiences have taught me that leadership is earned. You either sit quietly
and let someone else lead, or you step up and do it yourself.