Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Battle For Tacoma's Identity Unfolds On The Tideflats

Will James
A union leader speaks at a Sept. 13, 2017, hearing on interim regulations for Tacoma's tideflats

In the fight for Tacoma's economic future, the battlefield is the city's tideflats. 

The sprawl of shipping cranes, oil tanks, manufacturing buildings, and rail lines is the gritty heart of city's industrial economy.

Some say the area should remain an engine for well-paying, blue-collar jobs, even if that comes at some environmental cost. 

Others say Tacoma should leave that past behind and move toward a cleaner, more modern economy. 

Those competing visions clashed at a recent hearing for proposed regulations that would temporarily ban any new coal, oil, or gas terminals from the tideflats. 

The regulations would remain in place while the City Council crafts a long-term strategy for developing the area, which encompasses the land in and around the Port of Tacoma. 

The hearing Wednesday evening before Tacoma's Planning Commission brought out environmental activists, neighbors of the tideflats, and members of the Puyallup Tribe, who fear Tacoma could become a major hub of exporting fossil fuels. 

They called for a stricter version of the current proposal, including a ban on the expansion of existing fossil fuel terminals. 

But the hearing also brought out residents like Jeff Nichols, an electrician at a local paper mill, who showed up in a hardhat. 

“We have a rich history of labor and industrial jobs here," he said. "These are jobs that pay mortgages, make car payments, send kids to college, allow mothers to stay home with their children.”

For resident Seth Lundgaard, the proposed regulations pose a threat that goes beyond economics.

"It's a slap in the face to the character and heritage to this gritty city," he said. 

For others, that history is something to be left behind. 

Rick Semple, a landlord to more than a dozen businesses near the Port of Tacoma, evoked some of the less-than-pleasant sights and smells from Tacoma's industrial heyday. 

“We have all lived through the stigma of the ‘aroma of Tacoma’ and the Asarco smelter," he said. "We are now at a crossroads where we can choose to move on from those days toward a new and very visible future, or sit back and let bad decisions stifle positive, sustainable growth in our city.”

In the future he imagines, new companies relocate to the city for its improving quality of life. 

It's up to the Planning Commission to draft recommendations for temporary development rules in the tideflats, but the City Council will have the final say. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.