Larry LaRue: Larry Faulk is Tacoma’s patron saint of difficult causes

Staff WriterNovember 6, 2013 

Larry Faulk is no Don Quixote, charging windmills and trying to bring back chivalry.

Faulk’s dream is to bring two pandas to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

As a dream, it came alive when he stumbled upon a magazine ad welcoming a mating pair of giant pandas to the Edinburgh Zoo of Scotland in 2011. Faulk sprang into research mode and found that only four U.S. zoos had pandas: San Diego, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Memphis.

Faulk got in touch with the folks at Memphis.

“Memphis was a city that brought in two pandas for its zoo with the help of the ambassador to China, who was a former state senator,” Faulk said. “I realized the huge advantage we have. Former governor Gary Locke is now the U.S. ambassador to China.

“And I realized, this is something we can do.”

A Washington state senator in the 1960s, Faulk is 77 now and keeps busy. Much of his life is dedicated to a pair of lifelong loves — ideas and the city of Tacoma.

“I’ve been a big proponent of Tacoma all my life,” said Faulk, a former Boeing manager and nonprofit director. “It makes me sad that a local artist like Dale Chihuly built the museum to house his legacy in Seattle. Why not Tacoma? It was a missed opportunity.”

When the Sonics left Seattle for Oklahoma City, Faulk tried to rally support to bring an NBA team to Tacoma, using $200 million in state bond funds to build a new arena. Faulk sent a letter to NBA Commissioner David Stern, drawing a rather stiff response from an NBA attorney. There were no teams for sale, and a $200 million arena seemed a little insufficient, the attorney said.

An irate Faulk sent copies of that letter to local politicians and business leaders.

“I’ve gotten no responses,” Faulk told The News Tribune. “That surprised me.

“My dream is for everybody in Tacoma to have a share in a team, the way people of Green Bay have a share in the Packers. If the community got behind our team, it would put a much different shine on Tacoma.”

That didn’t happen. So now he’s moved on to pandas.

Faulk put together a color brochure showing what a panda exhibit might look like in Point Defiance — including a Gary Locke Pavillion.

He broke down what he thought the cost would be, about $30 million. And he described what he saw as the result of introducing pandas.

Faulk believes it would increase the zoo’s audience by 1 million visitors a year, result in $120 million in additional tourism spending, and increase Tacoma’s appeal to businesses looking to relocate.

“The concept is sound. We need to believe in great ideas — that’s what makes a great city. We need to go after two pandas,” Faulk said.

He has met with the Metro Parks District, the Tacoma City Council, a variety of elected state officials and written to dozens more, including Locke. Has anyone joined his panda campaign?

“No,” Faulk said.

Gary Geddes, the Point Defiance Zoo director, passed after meeting with Faulk. It wasn’t personal.

“If you were going to choose one animal, there is no other species in the zoo world that comes with the political and financial ramifications as the panda,” Geddes said.

The pandas belong to China, and the few American zoos displaying them all have to follow Chinese decisions on care, feeding and maintenance. The Memphis Zoo, for instance, has two full-time panda caretakers on staff — and are paying for two trainers from China, as well.

National zoo director Dennis Kelly told the online Global Post he found that the four U.S. zoos that house pandas paid a total of $33 million more than they took in from exhibiting over a three-year period ending last year.

At Point Defiance, “our top priority is dealing with the North Pacific Aquarium and the Rocky Shores exhibit,” Geddes said. “To do those two things we’re going to need $65 million to build new facilities.”

Bottom line. The zoo doesn’t want pandas.

Faulk insisted he’s not discouraged.

“There’s a book, ‘Listening In,’ that’s from the White House recordings of the JFK White House,” he said. “One of the conversations I go back to is Jack Kennedy pushing NASA to make landing a man on the moon their top priority. They resisted, but he kept pushing and got it done.

“It reminds me that even great ideas face a tough time.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

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