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: Bill Baarsma, former mayor of Tacoma and current president of the Tacoma Historical Society.
Born and raised in Tacoma, Bill Baarsma was a Tacoma city councilman from 1992-1999 and mayor from 2002-2009. He is a University of Puget Sound emeritus professor and is the current president of the Tacoma Historical Society.
Q: What moments in your background led you to your interest in Tacoma’s waterfront?
A: I grew up visiting Point Defiance Park, its aquarium, and Owen Beach. My grandparents had a cruiser at the yacht club and my dad would always talk about his desire to get a boat; he never did. I saved enough to buy a 1- foot runabout with a 25-horsepower Evinrude motor and stored it in a boat locker on Ruston Way. My dad and I put a fiberglass bottom on it and painted it. During my high school years, my best friend and I would take the boat, our BB guns, and a lunch to Vashon Island’s deserted beaches.
Q: What part of your involvement with the waterfront since then have you most enjoyed?
A: At the time I was sworn in to the City Council, Tacoma had just purchased for $6.8 million a 27-acre Superfund site on the Thea Foss Waterway, deemed one of the 10 most toxic sites in the country. The west side of the Foss was a barren wasteland. There were 13 hot spots in Commencement Bay—the Foss, the site of the former Simpson Tacoma Kraft Company, the Hylebos Waterway, and other inland waterways. Then the Asarco smelter site was added—an additional Superfund site.
The city took responsibility for the pollution and its cleanup, and became the largest property owner on the waterway. Private partners joined the two-decade effort. Simpson was a big player and initiated (its) own cleanup, attacking the dead zone on (its) property, and the smell from its paper pulp processing. Puget Sound energy came in. The cleanup was a much bigger deal than anyone expected. Dredging took four years. The Port of Tacoma was working on the cleanup of the Hylebos Waterway at this time, so these three projects converged. There was instrumental support from Olympia championed by Norm Dicks, Booth Gardner, and others. Challenging for us were the fines levied by the Environmental Protection Agency for Tacoma’s doing the right thing and the innovation of building a permanently capped berm near the Simpson property to dispose of much of the waste rather than dumping it in the bay.
In the view of many, these efforts were the greatest achievement in the city’s history because Commencement Bay defines this city, and we were on a downward slope before the city’s purchase. We committed to trying new cleanup approaches. No other city has purchased a Superfund site. Other communities are still trying to accomplish with their waterfronts what Tacoma has done—finding solutions that both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Ecology were/are comfortable with. Our objective was to negotiate rather than litigate, and that happened.
Q: What is the most unexpected occurrence regarding Commencement Bay that you have experienced?
A: The unintended fact that residential development ended up happening on the former Asarco smelter site. To me, it is stunning.
Q: Who has had the most influence on you?
A: The late Bob Evans, former Tacoma deputy mayor and my mentor. An architect by training and a member of the Washington Environmental Council, he was bright. He took exception to the notion that the Murray Morgan Bridge had to be torn down.
Q: What are the most critical needs of Commencement Bay going forward?
A: One: We must be vigilant of the continuing dangers and threats to the bay in committing to monitor our cleanup. Two: If we do not deal with climate change, the U.S. Oil and Refining Company and the rest of the shore will be underwater and unchecked acidity will seriously affect sea life. Three: We must face and solve the inevitable things affecting our waterways that will continue to happen from time to time.
Q: How does Tacoma balance the need for economic development with other community needs?
A: Economic development is a means to an end. It can sometimes have less than positive outcomes; i.e., the residences built around the Tacoma Mall with no requirements or oversight. There are no amenities in that community. Compare that to the success stories of the Salishan Redevelopment Project, a LEEDS certified effort, and to Point Ruston, the recent and planned development projects on the Foss Waterway, the University of Washington Tacoma, and the downtown Tacoma museums. There certainly remain pieces of economic development to be done on the Foss—expanding the esplanade, a proposed hotel, grocery store, and senior housing facility, the work with Metro Parks to build Central Park near the Murray Morgan Bridge and Waterway Park near highway 509.
Q: What are the significant changes that you can imagine happening on Commencement Bay?
A: As a result of the recent decision not to pursue the proposed methanol plant for Tacoma, I can see the Port of Tacoma and the City of Tacoma working together for a long-term strategy and coming to an agreement about the future development of Tacoma’s Tideflats.