Sitting in a pickup truck last week in the Star Lite Swap Meet parking lot, Sandy and Ed Wilson people-watched while waiting out the weather.
As the clouds gave way to blue sky and sunshine, the Auburn couple unfolded their table and set up shop.
“Need some elk antlers?” Ed Wilson asked.
The couple, who are in their mid-70s, guessed they’ve sold items at the swap meet for 15 to 20 years. They sell everything from fishing gear to jewelry to their latest garage sale finds.
“It’s not all about money,” Sandy Wilson said. “People our age don’t get sick if they have something to do.”
The swap meet is that “something” that keeps the Wilsons busy.
“We really enjoy it,” Ed Wilson said. “Us old fishermen can set up here and tell lies about our fish.”
The Star Lite Swap Meet is a Lakewood institution known beyond the South Sound. As other swap meets around the state have closed, it’s attracted vendors from as far away as Idaho and Oregon, according to owner Hank Bardon.
He pitches the swap meet as his act of charity for the community.
If we get rid of this it would be a crying shame to the state of Washington. People love to come to swap meets. It’s a family tradition that’s gone on for ages.
Patrick Calpito, Star Lite Swap Meet vendor
“I’m here because I help the senior citizens, the minorities who helped build the country and the poor who have to work the sixth and seventh day of the week,” Bardon said last week from the second story attic of his swap meet office building.
“I felt this was a good way to help people. This is basically just a donation.”
Others see the Star Lite as the source of a constellation of problems, including nefarious business dealings and unsanitary conditions.
“The city of Lakewood has issues over his operations,” said David Bugher, assistant city manager for development. “We are trying to get to the point where that business complies with all local regulations.
“We’re not to that point yet.”
In its early days, the Star Lite was a drive-in movie theater. It later became a swap meet by day and a movie venue by night.
The towering white-paneled movie screen serves as a rundown reminder of a former life. On a recent Saturday, it was the backdrop for families meandering around the 13-acre site in the 8300 block of South Tacoma Way.
Pushing strollers, drinking slushie-style drinks and snacking on items bought at the nearby concession stand, parents tried to keep their children moving as battery-powered barking dogs and bubble machines fought for their attention.
Snippets of negotiations could be overheard as shoppers and vendors bartered, often in Spanish, to get the best prices.
Weekends are the busiest, and when the weather is good crowds can reach in the thousands.
The high turnover of visitors causes congestion headaches on the roads. Traffic stacks up as motorists wait to park.
That’s what happened April 3, when four Lakewood police officers were called to the property to search for a missing child.
Ultimately, the officers’ experiences led the city to temporarily revoke the swap meet’s business license over concerns about public safety.
The suspension pushed the city’s tumultuous relationship with Bardon into the public spotlight.
HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
The IRS shut down the Star Lite in 2001 as part of an investigation into a Lakewood crime family. Three years later, Bardon bought the property at auction for $7.2 million.
The Star Lite first landed on the city’s radar under Bardon’s ownership after complaints that included the sale of stolen property and people selling without required permits.
The city and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also fielded complaints of unsanitary conditions in restrooms.
That ultimately led to a multiagency inspection of the property at the end of 2010. Lakewood police led the effort.
The inspection netted a half-dozen tools available for sale without serial numbers — a violation of Lakewood’s city code — that may have been stolen. It also found roughly 40 of the 267 vendors selling without required city permits.
The city could have suspended Bardon’s business license, but chose to work with him to fix the continuing problems, development director Bugher said.
“When we tell him to do something, he will,” Bugher said of the relationship with Bardon. “From my perspective, he has to be told and then he’s going to do what’s the minimum required.”
City Manager John Caulfield said the city could no longer look the other way after the April 3 incident when a 6-year-old girl was reported missing to 911. She was reunited with her family before police officers could help. Officers say they were delayed because of difficulty getting into the crowded swap meet.
Once there, the officers learned of two more children that had been separated from parents.
“What if that happens again? What if that happens again in two weeks, and something terrible happens?” Caulfield said. “We have a responsibility to do something here.”
He said that’s why he ordered the Star Lite’s business license suspended, pending a review.
Making an argument he’s pushed for a decade, Bardon said the city’s scrutiny of his business is personal, and his legal team made that argument at an April 11 hearing where Bardon challenged the suspension.
I’m here because I help the senior citizens, the minorities who helped build the country and the poor who have to work the sixth and seventh day of the week.
Hank Bardon, owner Star Lite Swap Meet
His attorney, Steve Burnham, contends city officials have prevented Bardon from addressing their concerns.
For instance, he said, the city cited heavy traffic around the swap meet and poor crowd management as reasons for pulling Bardon’s business license earlier this month.
But the city has not been receptive to Bardon’s effort to fix congestion, Burnham said.
Bardon wants to buy adjacent property for additional parking, including a vacant lot across 84th Street from the swap meet for a satellite parking lot.
Finding a solution to Bardon’s parking problems is not as easy as approving an application for a parking lot, Bugher said. An outdated section of city code and zoning requirements tied to nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord complicate the situation, he said.
The military wants less development in and around McChord Field, and Bardon’s property falls in an area where those restrictions apply.
The type of parking Bardon proposed also complicates things, Bugher said.
Bardon wants to build satellite parking instead of off-site parking, which have different requirements under city code. Off-site parking is allowed; satellite parking is not.
Bardon says Bugher has a vendetta against him and his business. Bugher said he was just doing his job.
“It was the direction of the city manager to take action on this,” Bugher said. “It was not me. I was asked to do this, so I did.”
Bugher points out he has approved permits for a used car business that Bardon owns without issue.
“I have a lot of respect for Hank Bardon when it comes to running a business,” he said. “He understands a business model.”
In addition, Bugher said, the city hasn’t aggressively enforced development standard requirements against the Star Lite because Bardon was “actively trying to address” his parking issues.
“The city didn’t come after him because it wasn’t a priority,” he said.
A week after the city suspended Bardon’s business license, Assistant Police Chief John Unfred — whom Caulfield appointed to oversee Bardon’s hearing — reinstated it with conditions.
Unfred agreed the city’s concerns about public safety were legitimate, but said they didn’t warrant closing the swap meet.
“I have determined that, with a few conditions, the business could take some steps to effectively mitigate much of the safety hazard,” Unfred wrote.
Unfred ruled Bardon could reopen if he agreed to meet three conditions:
▪ Use a mechanical or electric counter to document daily attendance to the swap meet grounds and provide a monthly attendance report to the city;
▪ Provide the city’s Public Works Department with a traffic management plan that meets specific requirements and details temporary traffic control measures for cars and pedestrians on weekends and other busy days.
▪ Schedule an inspection by West Pierce Fire and Rescue during a weekend swap meet.
Bardon has 60 days to comply with the traffic management plan and fire inspection. The city hopes to see attendance counts before then.
The Star Lite was open during the weekend.
What if that happens again? What if that happens again in two weeks and something terrible happens? We have a responsibility to do something here.
John Caulfield, Lakewood City Manager
Unfred’s decision was good news for swap meet vendors like Robert Payne who have been caught in the middle of the dispute.
If it wasn’t for the swap meet, Payne said, he wouldn’t have enough money to live.
“This is my income. I come out here when its snowing, raining,” said Payne, who is on disability. “I’ve been coming out here since they opened their doors.”
Patrick Calpito has sold items at the meet since he was 18. Now in his mid-40s, he said he’s watched the swap meet go downhill as Bardon has battled with the city.
Calpito wants the city do more to “weed out the bad apples” who have contributed to the Start Lite’s troubles. He also thinks the city needs to give Bardon a break.
Conversely, Calpito wants to see Bardon return the Star Lite to its early days when things were organized and trash didn’t litter the property.
He hopes the city and Bardon can work together to keep the swap meeting running.
“If we get rid of this, it would be a crying shame to the state of Washington,” he said. “People love to come to swap meets. It’s a family tradition that’s gone on for ages.”