David Rowlands, Tacoma’s city manager for 13 years, helped lead the city to national prominence amid an “Urban Renewal” movement that aimed to revitalize decaying inner cities across America.
He landed millions in federal grant dollars to launch a municipal bus system, develop sewage treatment plants and built two downtown parking garages in the 1960s. He also tore down dozens of buildings, saw Weyerhaeuser leave Tacoma and eventually supported a new mall that gutted the downtown retail core.
“It was a heady time for Tacoma, and Dave was right at the center of it,” said former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, a longtime friend who regarded Rowlands as a mentor. “The federal dollars were flowing, and he could pick up the phone and immediately talk to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. – that’s how much influence he had.”
Rowlands, a long-retired city manager who in recent years lived in a North End apartment across from his church, died of natural causes Wednesday. He was 97.
A lanky man with dark hair, Rowlands played basketball at Westminster College in Pennsylvania and later coached a high school team in Frenchburg, Ky., to the state’s semifinals.
But managing a city was Rowlands’ dream, and he pursued it by obtaining a political science degree from the University of Chicago.
Rowlands was city manager in Eau Claire, Wisc., when Tacoma hired him as its second city manager in 1956 after a national search. It was a tumultuous time, with politics divided over a new council-manager form of government.
“The council was looking for someone to be a salesperson, not only for the form of government but for the city,” said Baarsma, who interned for Rowlands.
In 1966, Rowlands became president of the International City Managers Association while Tacoma Mayor Harold Tollefson was president of the National League of Cities. At the time, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson promoted his “Great Society” agenda of domestic renewal programs. Tacoma took a prominent role in the movement.
Not all of Rowlands’ efforts were appreciated.
“He just loved that (federal grant) money and loved tearing down things some of us wanted to save,” recalled Dawn Lucien, a former city councilwoman who lived next door to Rowlands and often clashed with him at City Hall.
Rowlands resigned as city manager in November 1969, after an election that saw opponents to his agenda assume the council majority.
Away from City Hall, Lucien said, Rowlands was a personable neighbor and loving family man. He and his late wife, Sally, raised two daughters and two sons in a North Yakima Avenue home.
“He never once brought his work or what he was going through home to us,” said his son, John Rowlands, a pulmonologist at Tacoma General. “Home was a different place for him.”
Rowlands went on to work as city manager in Huntington Beach, Calif., and taught at California State University at Long Beach. He returned to Tacoma in retirement, enjoying his time as a voracious reader and playing bridge, despite worsening eyesight.
“Dad could barely see anything, but he could always hold those cards up,” John Rowlands said.
Rowlands is survived by his children, David, Jean, Peggy and John and their spouses, eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. A celebration of Rowlands’ life is set for 11 a.m., Tuesday, at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 901 North J Street.
Rowland’s son, David, retired as city manager in Chula Vista, Calif., and a grandson, David W. Rowlands, now manages the City of Clayton, Ohio. The three generations spoke about their experiences during a city management conference about seven years ago, John Rowlands said.
“It was an incredibly special thing for my dad to be a part of,” he said. ”If he had a fault, he was a very proud man. He was very proud of his career and all the accomplishments of his children.”