When Brad Nakamura was growing up on his family’s farm in Fife, he imagined that the fertile river valley would be farmland forever.
What a difference a few decades have made.
Abutting the Port of Tacoma and Interstate 5, this town has been transformed from bucolic farmland to a commercial and retail powerhouse second only to Tacoma in Pierce County.
Fife is the home to 13 car dealerships, seven recreational vehicle dealers, three boat stores, three truck sales locations, three motorcycle sales operations, a major casino-hotel, dozens of fast food restaurants, retail stores selling everything from furniture to office supplies and more than one-third of the number of hotel rooms in Pierce County,
Its main business areas are surrounded by a growing population of industrial properties, including a major window manufacturing plant, a beverage container plant, and regional and national distribution centers for dozens of companies.
And the Nakamura family farm is the site for a planned regional soccer center with multiple fields and spectator stands.
Nakamura is now chief financial officer of Rushforth Construction Co., which he owns with his brother, Kim Nakamura, and Randy Rushforth.
Rushforth’s headquarters is in Fife. Nakamura said the company, which built a new headquarters five years ago, never considered any other place.
“Fife’s a wonderful place to be,” he said. “It’s centrally located, and it’s easy to get to from anywhere.”
Indeed, Fife’s location has proven to be its greatest asset.
Richard Garchow, president of Fife’s Great American RV, said he chose Fife for his company’s store more than a dozen years ago because of its visibility.
“We’ve got exposure on both sides of our property, from (Highway) 99 one side and from I-5 on another,” he said. “You won’t find a location like that anywhere in the central Puget Sound area. I think the nearest site with that kind of visibility would be way up north in Marysville.”
“We figure that we’re situated almost in the center of Puget Sound population.”
Fife’s proximity to the freeway, the Pacific Northwest’s main highway artery, has in recent years made it a growing center of auto sales in Pierce County.
“We’ve got virtually all of the luxury brands here,” said Fife Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director P.K. MacDonald.
Since the I-5 location attracted Acura and Volvo dealerships more than a dozen years ago, Fife’s roster of luxury car dealers has grown to include Cadillac, Hummer, Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and Infiniti.
While the city’s freeway exposure has driven the influx of vehicle dealers, its nearness to the rapidly growing Port of Tacoma has fueled its expansion as a distribution center, said Garchow, Fife Area Chamber of Commerce president.
The five towering container cranes of the port’s newest container facility, the $200 million-plus Pierce County Terminal, are clearly visible from Fife’s main business district.
The business generated by the car dealers and the container terminals has helped keep business growing at one of Fife’s legacy businesses, Pick-Quick Drive-in. Founded in 1949, the burger stand on Pacific Highway has changed little other than the prices in more than five decades, said Joe Burgi, the drive-in’s co-owner.
“We get a lot of business from the car dealers. People will walk over here for a bite when they’re getting their cars fixed, and we’ve got a regular business from the longshoremen who work at the port,” he said.
In addition to its location, Fife boasts of its tax advantages over cities. It levies no business and occupation tax on a company’s gross business.
The growing pace of Fife’s business is not without its drawbacks. At the top of most businesses’ wish lists for the city is transportation congestion improvement.
The influx of container-carrying trucks coming and going to the port clogs the freeway off-ramps and slows traffic between businesses on both sides of I-5.
The chamber is lobbying for funds to complete Highway 167 from where it ends now in Puyallup across the river valley to connect with I-5, MacDonald said.
Likewise, the community is hoping the state will find a creative solution to funneling trucks to and from the port, Nakamura said.
The city has welcomed the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino and Hotel into the former Executive Inn. The casino has attracted thousands of customers to the city, but it’s had a downside for some of the city’s other hotels, MacDonald said.
Without the large meeting space at the inn, fewer small and medium conventions are attracted to Fife, a problem the chamber is tackling.
“We’ve only got about 5,000 residents, but we’re growing,” MacDonald said. Residential development is growing between Fife and Puyallup.
When that residential development reaches critical mass, said MacDonald, the city finally might get two assets it’s sought for years: a grocery store and a full-fledged post office.
Housing units: 2,232
Valuations on new buildings, 2004: $56.5 million
Business licenses, 2004: 1,248
John Gillie: 253-597-8663