Scholars and local historians might use 2012 as a landmark year in Tacoma’s history for number and size of its challenges and triumphs all wrapped up in 365 days. Here is a list of the Top 10 stories they might use to define the year:
It took many months to pull together, but Tacoma Art Museum landed the donation of some 280 pieces of art from the Western American art collection gathered by Erivan and Helga Haub that is set to boost the museum into the top rungs of the American art world. The Haubs’ art collection set to find homes on the museum’s walls provides the artistic depth and breadth that is set to transform the facility. Only museums in Denver, Wyoming and California have anywhere near the depth of this Haub donation. The Haub collection includes works by great American artists such as Albert Bierstadt, John Clymer, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Moran. The images span the romantic period of Western art through the age of exploration and the nostalgic era of the “Old West” that became settled by pioneers. The collection also includes contemporary artists in a genre of art that is being re-discovered by art lovers and historians. The collection covers realistic depictions of cowboys and Native Americans as well as mythic scenes painted decades after the era ended following the pioneer migration westward and modern pieces. Haub, a German billionaire with business and personal ties to Tacoma – where three of his sons were born – donated the art as a gift to the community that will now also have a museum with double the gallery space it has now. TAM is working on plans to add 15,000 square feet of new space on land between the museum and the federal courthouse in the former Union Station next door. Work on the new wing is being folded into the museum’s renovation plans that also include the plaza. Designs are underway by Seattle design architect Tom Kundig, who was the architect of record for the current building designed by Antoine Predock. Construction is set to start next year for completion in mid-2014. News of the donation rippled through the art community around the nation, Stebich said, as she has been receiving calls both for congratulations and inquiries about sharing the pieces for exhibits around the nation.
The former Elks Lodge #174 along Union Avenue is now gone, but the fight to keep it from becoming a construction site for a Wal-mart store will long be remembered. The $12.2 million property was the center of a battle between residents, small businesses and city officials who feared the mega retailer would cause traffic jams along the roadway and kill off smaller retailers. The future remains to be seen regarding those fears as construction of the store moves along, but the emergency moratorium meant to stop the sale and emerging “shop local” campaign that sprung from the news will be fodder for debate for years to come. The sale of the property was needed because the Elks sought to downsize as membership dropped and the aging building was becoming a financial money pit. The Elks have since concentrated its efforts toward a new facility across the street at Allenmore Golf Course, which it also owns.
The opening of LeMay: America’s Car Museum in June at the landmark facility next to the Tacoma Dome will be seen for generations as a key effort to boost Tacoma as a regional, if not world, tourist destination. The 165,000-square-foot, four-story facility is not only one of the largest car museums in the world, but is the largest celebration of all types of cars and America’s car culture. The four floors, each the size of a football field, showcase cars and car culture in six exhibits. The $60 million museum houses cars, trucks and motorcycles from private owners, corporations and the LeMay collection, which amassed a Guinness Book world record of more than 3,500 vehicles in the mid 1990s. The late Harold LeMay, owner of local refuse hauler LeMay Enterprise Inc., spent decades collecting all sorts of cars before his death in 2000. But his legacy of a car museum was well underway by then. Plans for America’s Car Museum started in 1998 as simply a way to store and showcase the massive collection of all things motorized. Plans grew as the years passed into what is now projected to be an automotive Mecca, set to attract some 500,000 car lovers who will make pilgrimage from around the world to Tacoma to view the collection. The 400,000-500,000 visitors expected to visit the museum each year will bring millions of tourism dollars to Pierce County as well. Total visitor expenditures in Pierce County prompted by the museum are expected to exceed $34 million annually.
It really isn’t that much of a stretch of the term to say Tacoma’s budget review in 2012 was epic. But the months of cuts, layoffs and budget gutting followed by plans for more cuts, layoffs and budget gutting to fill a $63 million projected shortfall will certainly go down in history as a time Tacoma faced its long-standing practice of structural deficits with a “back to basics” budget that quite literally meant no program or city spending was safe. With that level of cuts, it was just as surprising that the budget passed with a unanimous vote by the City Council and little protest for those most affected by the cuts. On the chopping block were some 217 jobs from around the city, most notably a layoff of 29 positions within the police department, 31 within the fire department and 71 in Public Works that will impact pothole repairs and parks maintenance. Police cuts amount to about $7 million, while fire cuts save $11 million. Public Works cuts total $11 million. Most of the city staff cuts were either filled by early retirements or not funding vacant positions. But some 70 employees have been laid off. On the revenue side, the City Council approved a plan to collect $20 on annual vehicle tab renewals to fund $4.1 million in street improvements through the formation of a Transportation Improvement District. The new charge starts in June. The city also axed a business and occupation tax exemption for non-profit hospitals that gross more than $30 million a year. The new revenue is expected to bring in $9.5 million during the two-year budget. An additional $4.1 million over two years would come from the vehicle license-tab fee. All these cuts and new taxes or fees came through with levels of transparency and community input.
The Occupy Tacoma takeover of Pugnetti Park at Pacific Avenue and 21st Street rose as the local arm of the international “occupy” movement that started on Wall Street, and ended with little attention. But its effort marked the start of a grassroots effort of political activism that continues today. The occupation of the park was one of the longest “occupation protests” in the world, and also one that did not end with violence. Department of Ecology, which owns the property, issued a three-day eviction notice, and the protesters packed up and left by nightfall on the final day. The effort might not have brought landmark changes to national or even local politics, but it did prompt thousands of otherwise silently disgruntled citizens to being to become politically active under the banner of being among the “99 percent.”
Tacoma’s on-and-off-again fight with Clear Channel Outdoor concerning billboards and blighted signage around the city seems to have taken a turn toward resolution in 2012 when the outdoor media giant began removing some of its billboards in Tacoma this fall. As part of a legal time-out the two sides reached in August, Clear Channel was required to remove some signs that are deemed non-conforming under city regulations but left unattended. City attorneys and Clear Channel continue negotiations to resolve the role of billboards along an urban landscape. City officials plan to obtain feedback from the public on this consolidation plan being considered over the next two years as part of those talks. The dispute goes back to 1997, when the city passed a law that provided 10 years for the removal of signs that did not fit within new limits for size and location. Clear Channel, which eventually purchased the majority of billboards in Tacoma, sued the city just before the law was to take effect in 2007, arguing it violated its First Amendment rights. A settlement was reached calling for demolition of many signs in exchange for allowing Clear Channel to install a limited number of digital billboards. Public opposition to these video signs caused the city to backtrack from that deal. The community effort against billboards prompted local blogger, web designer and community activist Kevin Freitas to put his tech skills to work by putting the effort into the hands of anyone with a smartphone. The man behind the community news aggregator FeedTacoma.com created a mobile-friendly web page that allows Tacoma residents, workers and casual visitors to the City of Destiny to report the location and condition of unkempt billboards directly from their smartphones rather than jotting down information to be then submitted to the City of Tacoma’s complaint system. With a few thumb taps on a web-enabled smartphone, the application allows people to fill out an online form that notes the GPS coordinates, the billboard number, and the specific code violation such as litter or torn or structurally unsound. The information is then sent to the city code enforcement office as well as kept in a database so results can be charted.
Tacoma lost one of its most ardent backers in “the other Washington” when one of the more illustrious political careers in the history of this state decided to not seek re-election this year. U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Belfair, ended his time in Congress after 18 terms and entered the history books as longest serving Congressman in state history, topping the 30 years served by Democrat Tom Foley of Spokane, who left the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995. Prior to his 36 years as an elected member, Dicks spent eight years on the staff of U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson. Dicks, known as “the bull” in political corners for being a tough negotiator for causes he backed, represented the Sixth Congressional District, which includes part of Tacoma and stretches west to encompass the Olympic Peninsula down to Ocean Shores. He played a key role in providing federal funding to major projects in the renaissance of downtown, including renovation of Pantages Theater, saving Union Station and building the adjoining federal courthouse and the Interstate 705 spur connecting the city center with Interstate 5. Dicks was also a key player in brokering the Puyallup Tribe's land claims settlement in the late 1980s. The $162 million package of land, cash and funding for social programs led the tribe to relinquish its claims to land in downtown, the Tideflats, Fife and Puyallup. The settlement led to the rise of international trade through the Port of Tacoma and distribution centers in the nearby suburbs. His seat is now set to be filled by State Senator Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, who won election to the post in November.
The one-term Pierce County Assessor/Treasurer Dale Washam leaves office with the new year and will likely be talked about for a while as one of the most controversial political figures to represent an area that has quite a rogues gallery of interesting characters. Washam barely survived a recall as well as barrages of votes of no confidence and investigations during his term in office. The hostile work environment investigations and court settlements have cost taxpayers millions, and the tally will grow even after he leaves office. Albert Ugas, his chief deputy, has since filed his own claim against the county for what he alleges as a conspiracy against him.
Pierce County finally has begun taking action to control flooding around the area with this year’s formation of a county-wide Flood Control Zone that will raise money for water-control projects. The mission of the flood control district is to generate tax dollars that would be used to protect lives, homes and businesses around the county from catastrophic losses caused by flooding, particularly if the Puyallup River overruns its banks and shuts down Interstate 5 the way waters did in Lewis County three years ago. The economic impact of that flooding exceeded $10 million per day. The Flood Control Zone became official in April, but the County Council is still developing ways the district will operate and how the district will determine the tax rate that property owners will pay to fund projects. This is a big deal, since not only are there direct threats to life and property if the aging levees and current projects fail to keep the waters within the riverbanks, but there is a growing threat to business, the environment, transportation and tourism dollars if the area floods. An analysis released in October 2010 concluded the county could face economic losses of more than $725 million. The county estimates that some 21,000 people would be directly affected by a massive flood, while some 17,000 jobs would be lost or stalled. Some 9,300 homes in the county would face significant damage. But to some degree, everyone in the county would be touched by the rising waters through impacts on work or travel or by the environmental damage flood waters would bring. Some 216,000 people, for example, would be affected by the loss of sewer treatment services if the three sewer treatment plants located within local flood plains have to shut down as water rises around them. That could lead to untreated sewage flowing into local waterways. The district’s funding will come from a levy of 10 cents per $1,000 assessed value, which amounts to $20 a year on a $200,000 home. The money cannot be used for anything other than flood-related actions. That tax rate will generate about $8 million that will be matched with federal funds to chip away at the backlog of repairs. The 10-cent rate is what has been recommended by the County Council as the district was forming. State law allows for five times that rate. A decision of what rate taxpayers will actually pay will rest with the Flood Control District’s Board of Supervisors. That board is made up of County Council members, meaning the members will largely be advising themselves.
Years of planning and months of construction ended this year with the opening of Metro Parks’ South Tacoma Activities and Recreation Center – STAR Center – in May. The 32,000-square-foot center in South Tacoma offers rentable hall spaces, a new music and dance studio, a teaching kitchen, a fitness room and an indoor/outdoor children’s playground that is primed for play dates and toddler parties. The $16 million building, at the corner of South 66th and Adams streets, has activities for all ages and serves as the anchor facility of a regional recreation complex that also includes Gray Middle School and the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Topping Hope Center, which will share gym and activity space to create a “recreational hub” that tops more than 100,000 square feet of space. The combined facilities span some 75 acres of sports fields and recreational offerings under the umbrella name South End Recreational Adventure Campus. The private-public partnership penned to make STAR Center now provides the district with a model that will likely lead to similar centers around the city in the years to come.