Our Voices, Our Waterfront: Norm Gollub

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:  Norm Gollub, the new executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority.   Last June Norm Gollub was named the Foss Waterway Development Authority’s new executive director. The […]

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:  Norm Gollub, the new executive director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority.


Last June Norm Gollub was named the Foss Waterway Development Authority’s new executive director. The authority was created in 1996 to be the coordinating agency and advocate for appropriate development along the waterway.  The City of Tacoma cannot legally sell its properties along the Foss, so the FWDA was founded to do that though a very public process involving requests for proposals process, vetting and committee review.  The agency is also responsible for developing the esplanade along the waterfront and operating Delin Docks, a permanent moorage marina for recreational and live aboard boaters. Gollub came to Tacoma from serving as downtown economic development director for Sarasota, Florida. He considers the Pacific Northwest home having moved to Portland in 1982 from Boston.  He and his wife still own their home in Portland and lived there upon returning from a South Carolina position, prior to working in Florida.  He plans to use the skills he’s used throughout his career to bring about positive changes and help fill the gap that sometimes exists between private developers and government agencies.

Q:  What are the skills this job takes?

A:  A technical understanding of the built environment—architecture and landscape architecture, civil engineering, environmental planning, and real estate development are the primary skills needed for this job.  I have worked for firms in southern Illinois, Boston, South Carolina, Portland, and other places, earning me the moniker by my last employer “itinerant professional”.  Early in my career, when I moved to Portland in 1982 at the height of a recession, I began working for what would become the Central City Concern, the primary developer of homeless housing.  I worked on converting old, dilapidated hotels into single-room occupancy housing. After that, I worked in long-range planning for Portland’s light rail transit system.  I later managed the design component of the National Main Street program for the State of Oregon.  Eventually, I started a consulting practice, beginning with authoring an Environmental Impact Statement for a 420 acre project in Clark County, Washington.  That and other subsequent work provided in-depth experience working with the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

Q:  What is the biggest challenge in this kind of work?

A:  Moving through the necessary agreements from people and agencies with different perspectives in order to move projects forward.  Collaboration is the key to making many initiatives work.

Q:  How do you achieve that?

A:  It takes patience, persistence, and a bit of haggling.  Most people want something when they come to the table, it may not always be tangible or recognizable.  That has to be identified and addressed.

Q:  What are the priorities for you in Tacoma?

A:  Tradition and culture is important. We want to emulate this on the Foss which has a long history of change.  Bringing about projects that are sustainable is also a goal.  I’ve observed that some are better at melding development and environmental aspects into their projects.  We hope to integrate traditions and cultural notions into upcoming initiatives that will bring downtown employees, residents and visitors to the water. This will involve programming the esplanade with sponsored activities and promoting this area for walking and recreation.

Q:  What attracted you to the Pacific Northwest and Tacoma?

A:  I had worked around the country but not in the Pacific Northwest.  My decision to move here was influenced when I was living in Boston and read a 1981 book by Joel Garreau in which he suggests that North American can be divided into nine nations which have distinctive economic and cultural features (Tacoma lies in Ecotopia along with Idaho, Oregon, and Montana). I was intrigued and so I moved to Portland in 1982, where I later met my wife.  We resonate with the northwest.  We own a home in Portland and lived there in between jobs in South Carolina and Florida.  Returning again to this area from Florida was our logical choice.  I was drawn to the opportunity to work in Tacoma and in considering this particular position I saw a lot of potential in Tacoma.  I thought it was undergoing positive change.  I like that there is a casual entry level to this community, and that I can wear a flannel shirt and blue jeans to work on days I don’t have meetings.

Q:  What are the largest challenges for the kind of development you will be doing?

A:  Making the necessary improvements with the resources available.  There is limited infrastructure in the street north of the 11th Street Bridge to do what we would like. An LID (Local Improvement District) could fund those infrastructure improvements and allow for development to continue north along Dock St.  The LID would be through the City of Tacoma.  We were not able to get it approved this year since the city is still reducing its budget deficit and getting healthy economically.

Q:  What has surprised you?

A:  The cost of esplanade installation.  It’s very expensive.  Also, the results of a recent survey we did with Dock Street residents showed us that 50% of respondents had never been to the six Tacoma museums nearby.  This tells us that we need to work on drawing attention to these great local attractions.

Q:  What are next steps for the Foss Waterway Development Authority?

A:  The arrival of an aging in place facility to be built by Presbyterian Retirement Communities Northwest that will bring a multi-generational community to Dock Street and the esplanade.  It will add to the 596 residential units in buildings, that is over 1000 residents; 700 boat slips, and 99 live aboard residents that make the Foss Waterway their home.

Q:  What are your wildest dreams for this place?

A:  A passenger shuttle to Seattle from the Tacoma Municipal Dock next to the 11th Street Bridge. The existing elevator there would quickly transport employees and visitors to the Pacific Avenue street level for access to downtown Tacoma. Possibly a relocation of the Port of Tacoma Headquarters to the Thea Foss Waterway, maybe on the Wheeler-Osgood branch. This would be a vital anchor for the Foss and could stimulate other businesses over time. Also preservation of the waterway’s history and heritage; this helps to drive tourism.

Q:  What would those dreams take?

A:  The Washington Department of Transportation regulates transportation for the state. They would need to do a feasibility study to identify ridership demand. As we further develop the Foss Waterway, such a passenger service may be justified. We need to overcome the challenge of parking to make this happen. Creating parking for the public associated with transportation and for some residents would be an important asset.

Q:  What has Tacoma learned related to its waterway development?

A:  We don’t sell land in order to let it sit. We put time constraints on deals to ensure that parcels are developed. We only sell land if time constraints on development are in place.

Q:  What is Tacoma continuing to learn?

A:  A diverse base of residential housing is critical along with quality of life amenities like parks and museums. Tacoma has the bones for this; it needs to continue to build its muscle. Retail is challenging along the waterfront because the critical mass of residential population is not yet here. Pt. Ruston is a good example with its developed walkways, plenty of parking, and good marketing. It is convenient to get to. The Tacoma community is having the discourse about these developments that it needs to have. The Neighborhood Associations are playing a role in this, and elected officials are listening. Some things are easier to accomplish than others. We may not get the solutions we like but want to get the best that we can.

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