Tacoma Youth Marine Center makes it official today on the Foss Waterway, giant scissors and all. It celebrates its grand opening with tours, boat rides, a free barbecue and officials praising the innovation and perseverance of the people who made it real.
But the ribbon cutting is a formality. This spring, the center already is, as its motto says: “Helping youth touch the Sound.”
Public school marine biology students have sailed, motored and rowed out to catch and study plankton. University of Puget Sound students have launched research expeditions. Tacoma Metro Parks specialists have put together water-based summer camps. High School Navy ROTC cadets practice there.
And, of course, the 150-plus Boy Scouts of America Sea Scouts who maintain the Verite, Odyssey and Charles Curtis have settled in after their move from a base across the waterway.
In 2005, the Sea Scouts’ old building, which they’d used virtually rent-free since 1982, was aging unsafely. It also seemed to be in the way of residential and retail development working its way toward the mouth of the Foss.
Tom Rogers and Hank Hibbard have been mainstays on the waterfront for decades, working for free as volunteers with Sea Scouts. To find a new home for the Scouts, they brought in the city, the port, parks, schools and businesses.
Hibbard and Rogers thought they’d have a new marine center operational in a year. It has taken 5 1/2.
The team led by the two men worked out a plan with the Port of Tacoma, which wanted a permanent maritime-related buffer on the Foss that would separate traditional blue-collar uses from the encroaching urban development.
The port paid $1.6 million for the acre of waterfront and the 20,000-square-foot building at 820 E. D St. Tacoma Youth Marine Foundation paid $600,000 for the businesses on it, Totem Marine Services and Totem Fuel Dock.
The foundation took it over at the end of 2006, renamed it Commencement Bay Marine Services and kept it working. To maintain and pay rent on the building, they planned to use profits from boat repairs, haul-outs and sales of 120,000 gallons in fuel.
As the economy improves and people get back in their boats, they expect a boom in the deferred-maintenance business. This spring, one owner complained that his cruiser had lost its get-up-and-go. When they hauled it out, the hull was so thick with sea life that fish fell out.
It was such a mess, it reminded them of the shape the Totem operations were in when the foundation acquired them.
Business was sinking. The old building was stuffed with seized-up engines, fetid carpet, parts of forgotten boats, and a law library. The lot was crammed with old boats, 57 of which were derelict and in arrears on storage fees.
Managing it properly meant cleaning it up, getting rid of bad boats and tons of junk in the second-floor loft. It meant improving business practices and recruiting new customers, mostly recreational boaters, in what turned out to be an economic recession.
Fitting the Youth Marine Center into the middle of this meant dropping pre-recession dreams of an architect-designed interior built by professionals.
Instead, they did it themselves. They built storage systems for life jackets, uniforms, 11 sailboats and 16 kayaks. They set aside space for classrooms. Instead of the kitchen they’d planned, they have a few slow cookers.
They moved what they needed from the old Sea Scout base across the water. A dockside sale of the rest netted $2,800.
They have built a hobby shop for woodworking. They have cleaned up the work spaces where six employees repair boats and where young people learn about marine engines and pick up shipwright skills. The center has plans to develop apprenticeships.
Big as all that effort was, it was small stuff compared with the docks they would need for the 90-foot Odyssey, the 78-foot Charles Curtis and the fuel dock business.
“Two years ago, they were a little high-centered,” said Mike Lonergan, Tacoma Youth Marine Center executive director. “They had a grant from the city that would pay for part of the docks. They needed more money.”
Lonergan connected to the state Department of Parks and Recreation and secured $225,000. Combined with $75,000 in private donations and $500,000 from the city’s real estate excise tax, they pulled together $800,000.
Those docks now handle cruises on the Sea Scout boats and research expeditions.
They could also host festivals, featuring the South Sound’s rich collection of wooden boats and tall ships.
Today, they will be the boarding point for the grand opening of Tacoma’s Youth Marine Center.
Rogers will set up the barbecue by the gazebo – salvaged, of course – on the edge of the Foss, the spot he thinks has the best view in all of Tacoma.
“Can you imagine this on a warm summer evening?” he asked on a rainy afternoon.
“Can you imagine a warm summer evening?” his pal Hibbard shot back.
Yes, we can. Sometimes it just takes longer than we think to get what we want.