More change for Tacoma’s shoreline?

The News TribuneJune 25, 2014 

A welder worked on one of four Navy tugboats at the Martinac shipbuilding company in 2009.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, 2009

No one walking along the Thea Foss Waterway, looking out from The Esplanade condos or having lunch on the patio at Johnny’s Seafood could miss J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. on the other side of the waterway with its huge crane and massive metal sheds.

Martinac has been an important part of Tacoma’s working waterfront for 90 years, building everything from tugboats and fishing vessels to Navy minesweepers needed for the war effort in the 1940s.

Now the company is in deep trouble, facing foreclosure and few prospects of getting out from under payments and late fees due on a $5.4 million loan that kept it afloat during construction of its last project. It also owes Pierce County $13,429 for three years worth of property taxes. Unless Martinac gets a big customer or investor, the shipyard faces a foreclosure auction July 18.

Loss of this last big, longtime shipbuilder would leave a hole — not only in jobs but in the city’s character. Without a shipbuilder on the Foss, Tacoma would be just a little less “gritty.”

Martinac’s utilitarian, even homely boat sheds on the waterway contrast with the sleek lines of the Museum of Glass and other newer buildings on the opposite shore. These clashing images reflect the ongoing transition of Tacoma’s shoreline from industrial to one that is more people-oriented. Given environmental concerns and the amount invested in the Foss Waterway’s cleanup, moving to cleaner uses makes practical sense.

A big question is what should happen on the site if Martinac were shuttered and the property auctioned off. In the past, the Port of Tacoma has resisted gentrification of that side of the waterway. It fought developer Mike Cohen, who wanted to build a condominium/office building there — with a great view of downtown Tacoma. He’s now focused on developing Point Ruston.

After nine decades of industrial use, the site could have expensive environmental cleanup issues that might present a roadblock for redevelopment. The best possible scenarios, short of saving Martinac, would be for another boat-related company to buy the site and set up shop or for the port to buy it and find another, less industrial use for it.

Although there are economic realities at work to explain Martinac’s woes — including cheaper competition abroad and in other states — it would be a sad day if this longtime company were to fade from the scene.

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