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’s feature: Dean Burke, the executive director of the Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission and co-vice president of the Tacoma Waterfront Association.
This month, we explore the thoughts of one who navigates the waters of Commencement Bay by using a stand-up paddleboard.
Dean Burke is the executive director of the Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission, a non-profit organization that promotes Tacoma and Pierce County as a destination for major amateur sporting events. You can find his Tacoma TEDX Talk on YouTube and learn more about the region’s assets through the perspective of his encounter with an orca on a winter morning.
Q: How did your interest in the water come about?
A: I grew up around water, and I have lived here for 21 years. For a long time, I felt the water was inaccessible because of the limited places along Commencement Bay to get to it. I don’t like to sit in low things (kayaks, canoes) and discovered paddleboards six years ago. Being on the water using a paddleboard made me take stock of the massive natural resource Tacoma has. Commencement Bay is minutes from my door. I can get up in the morning, paddle with a humpback whale blowing bubbles on my board, and be home in two hours. The only other way you have that level of natural experience is with a bear.
Q: What inspires you?
A: The opportunity Tacoma has right now. The community has the chance to be mindful of its long game with the future of Commencement Bay and its environs. I don’t want to see it become a Vancouver, B.C., with overpriced gentrification. My fellow paddlers also inspire me. We share a similar understanding of the surging power of the bay and the shifting currents 600 feet out, even when it looks serene from the shore.
Q: What is Tacoma’s big story?
A: It is Tacoma’s border to the water. Previously Tacomans thought that you had to pack up the car and go to the San Juan Islands or Mt. Rainier to have a moving natural experience. Now we have 4,500 people living on the shoreline and touching the water between the Foss Waterway and Point Ruston. When the Asarco smelter was here, even barnacles could not grow in that part of the bay. Now there are starfish and anemones in the same waters. With these changes, we cannot help but have a major behavioral shift in how this community engages with the water. If you go even one-half mile out on a paddleboard; it is very different from the powerboat experience. It is different from being on a lake. Salt is tidal; it moves and is different each day. People get to experience the wild northwest narrative again when on the water here. In my view, this had turned down the volume on industry as a part of the story—until the recent methanol debate. Nobody saw the industrialization questions happening again until this issue arose. It has forced both a great conversation and brought good people into the dialogue. Our challenge now is to reconcile how we can be both and industrial port and a place where people can have unique recreational experiences on the water.
Q: What have been the impacts of these changes in Commencement Bay?
A: People feel differently about the community when they personally get out on the water. Last year there were 4,000 hours of rented watercraft out of Tacoma marinas. Three years ago there were only 1,000 hours. Renting gets out people who are interested in trying water navigation—those who do not necessarily own a craft yet. We see the changes through organizations locating here such as the Kikaha O Ke Kai Outrigger Canoe Club with their new paddling center on the Foss Waterway. There is the rigorous activity of the Youth Marine Center and the increasing paddling, kayaking, and sailing out of the Foss Waterway Seaport.
Q: What is next in your view?
A: We need to quickly grapple with the question of whether or not we are an industrial port. Can the recreation and the industry co-exist? Where are the limits? The coming of museums and UWT and Point Ruston and the future McMenamins has changed the livability of the city. You don’t get these with major industry. What is filling in around the bay should inform us what matters to people. It is a reflection of what people who live here want to see. In my view, our shoreline is our biggest asset. We are not entitled to our former bad habits. We, as a community, need to be more aware of what government is doing. We need to begin educating children early in what community budgeting, planning, investments mean and how to add them all up, looking at it from multiple perspectives. We need to raise the bar high for development. We have the potential to be a world model with our mix of industry and other interests.
Q: What other communities can Tacoma look to for wisdom on these issues?
A: We have a very delicate resource and a different setting because of our water location. We do not want to become a Houston, Texas, with our industrial development. Bellingham, Washington, believes we are ahead of decisions they are about to make and have reached out for advice.
Q: Is there a moment that changed your outlook?
A: Yes, the first time I turned the engine off the boat I was in and drifted through 33 orcas. It struck me as a day when I had all this space around me. It was every bit as special as standing on the top of Mt. Rainier. It affects you when a giant marine mammal rises up out of the water to look at you—to study you. It has made me a fierce protector of the environment, like a parent is of one’s child. Once it happens, it is a doorway you cannot retrace your steps through.
I am glad I was not born earlier or I would have missed what is now worth stewarding because of our cleanups. It is a natural thing to protect it and to share it.