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: Wes Wenhardt, executive director of the Foss Waterway Seaport.
Wesley Wenhardt has served as executive director of the Foss Waterway Seaport since August 2013. His previous work experience includes startups and launches of numerous cultural and heritage centers around the world.
Growing up in Canada, he was fortunate to be present at the merging of the new South Africa in 1994 while starting and launching the first permanent IMAX Cinema in Africa. That’s where he learned the value of getting people in a room at the same time to move in the same direction and to define and achieve their shared goals.
Q: What drew you to museum work?
A: As a family we used to go camping and canoeing. My father was an agrologist — one who bred plants — so I spent a lot of time outdoors and growing up in nature. Early on, I worked in the national parks and have always been fascinated with informal learning environments and the obligation and privilege of the resources we have to protect.
Q: What attracted you to Tacoma?
A: Tacoma and the opportunity at the Foss Waterway Seaport struck me as a location that was at a very cool place in its evolution. The foundations were all here, thanks to the hard work of the dedicated board, staff and volunteers, to go forward and I thought that I might be able to make a difference here. I was immediately interested in how far we could take the dream to reality.
I find Tacoma not only gritty but also glamorous. Tacoma is not a working man’s town any longer. With the Prairie Line Trail, the relocation of the Old Spaghetti Factory, the capacity at the University of Washington Tacoma and other similar projects, there is great vibrancy and a successful revitalization of its core.
Q: What parts of the Tacoma community have the greatest stake in the success of the Foss Waterway Seaport?
A: The Tacoma Public Schools and the broader educational system, those residents living on the Foss Waterway, and pedestrians–as the walking/biking link is completed from downtown to Pt. Defiance Park.
Q: As a native Canadian, what do you see as the difference between how Canada approaches maritime history and how Tacoma does it?
A: In the U.S, the private sector is more vested in storytelling, preservation, and funding. Canadians tend to wait for the government to get involved and to take a lead role, then jump on board.
Q: What is untapped here?
A: Greater public access and use of the waterway. As an example, during the tenth anniversary of the cleanup of the Thea Foss over 100 paddlers paddled down the waterway to the Seaport during Maritime Fest. Greater access and pedestrian linkages to the water and the shoreline are also hopefully emerging.
Q: In the best of futures, what does Commencement Bay look like 10 years from now?
A: Clear, clean cold water. And a future where we have figured out what we will build here and why. Currently the economic side might appear to be convincing; however the environmental side is growing stronger and more convincing. I can envision a water taxi-like ferry and non-motorized boating between the Foss Waterway and Ruston. There would be a need for regular watercraft and boating safety classes because there are so many people on the water.
Q: What would you like Tacoma to know about Commencement Bay that they may not know?
A: That its deep-water port is the reason for Tacoma’s existence, and the railway was the catalyst for all that has happened here. When you look at a map, it is amazing. All of that gets missed if you are traveling on I-5.
As far as the Foss Waterway Seaport is concerned, we are not really a museum but a community center on the waterfront of like-minded individuals where people can gather, recreate, dock a boat, and hold meetings. We join a growing community of people celebrating Tacoma’s rich maritime heritage; past, present and future. And that the Seaport is a treasured community asset.
Q: What is your personal favorite aspect of Tacoma’s maritime history?
A: The colorful characters and their resourcefulness. Witness the canoe-building Willits brothers of Day Island. Earl and Floyd Willits who built some of the world’s finest canoes yet did not speak to each other! And the riveting story of Thea Foss, who inspired Tugboat Annie, the birth of a world-wide transportation concern. Talk about female empowerment!
Q: What have you learned in these three years?
A: That good things take time and that it is a step-by-step process. When they do happen, the community comes out to support them. That progress is hard-learned and hard-earned. That Tacoma entrepreneurial spirit is alive and thriving. It continues to produce an incredible number of patents related to its maritime industry.
Q: What have you had to say “no” to for the Seaport?
A: Storing other people’s treasures and vessels! It is easy to get distracted; we have to stay focused on our mission–to celebrate the rich maritime history of the Tacoma community and the region through interpretation, education and events that tell the stories of our collective past, present, and future.
Q: What kinds of stories?
A: Stories that celebrate the natural environment, the people of the region, its maritime and boating history, commerce and trade, and the very unique stories of Tacoma; for example, the story of the Seaport’s location in the historical Balfour Building. It is a century-old wooden wheat warehouse built for cargo arriving by rail and departing by sail.