This is a big year for higher-education milestones around Pierce County and Washington state. Tacoma Community College turns 50 years old in 2015. Pacific Lutheran University is celebrating its 125th year. So is Washington State University.
And then there’s the little branch campus that could.
The University of Washington Tacoma opened 25 years ago, along with another UW branch campus in Bothell, after a hard-fought community lobbying effort. The first day of classes in Tacoma was Oct. 1, 1990.
The first few years were slow going. Lackluster enrollment hovered around the state-mandated minimums.
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But UW Tacoma has since taken flight, expanding from a two-year to a four-year institution and more than doubling its student body since 2006. Along the way, it has transformed the character of Tacoma’s formerly rundown Pacific Avenue corridor and consolidated the ownership of an old warehouse district into public hands — a 46-acre downtown footprint that is still filling up.
This is what city leaders imagined.
“It required a real vision and perseverance,” said Bill Baarsma, who was on the City Council in the ’90s and later became mayor. “For once, everything fell into place for Tacoma.”
1. Transformed a blighted neighborhood
Twenty-five years ago, strip clubs, card rooms, cheap bars, dark parking garages and derelict buildings lined Pacific Avenue.
“That was a dark and scary place,” said Bill Baarsma, former Tacoma mayor. “The primary enterprise in that part of Tacoma back then was black tar heroin.”
Gary Pedersen went to work for the city as a building inspector in 1980 and often worked in the warehouse district that’s now mostly occupied by UWT.
“Not a lot of people around there,” Pedersen recalled in a 2002 interview. “And if you did see people, you didn’t want them to see you. They weren’t ones you would want to run into.”
It wasn’t surprising, then, that skeptics abounded when some city leaders proposed bringing a branch of the University of Washington to downtown Tacoma.
A handful of business leaders persevered, hoping their vision of a transformed Tacoma would become reality.
Twenty-five years later, the establishment of UW Tacoma is credited as a catalyst for Pacific Avenue’s economic revival that included the Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum, the Washington State History Museum, Link light rail, boutique storefronts, restaurants and the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center.
Starbucks, Jimmy John’s and a University Book Store have moved in. Local eateries such as Hello, Cupcake and Granolas Frozen Yogurt and More share the block with university classrooms.
It didn’t happen overnight. But after the university opted to renovate the once derelict warehouses that lined Pacific Avenue, private business followed.
Between 1990 and 2003, roughly $1.5 billion in public and private money was invested downtown.
2. Raised the education level of Pierce County residents
When local business leaders and legislators petitioned to open a public university in Tacoma in the late 1980s, they cited Pierce County’s education gap.
Washington’s second-most populous county trailed King County, the state and the nation in the percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher.
Proponents argued that adding a UW campus would improve access to higher education for placebound people and ultimately increase the number of Pierce County residents with more than two-year degrees.
Today, Pierce County still chases King County, the state and the nation in degree acquisition. But the numbers are improving.
In 1990, when the school was established, 18 percent of Pierce County’s population 25 years or older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to U.S. Census data. That percentage increased to 24 percent for the period from 2009 to 2013, according to the most recent Census, compared to King County (47 percent), Washington state (32 percent) and the United States (29 percent).
Initially, UWT offered degree programs for third- and fourth-year students, targeting older, working adults who might not have other options for higher education.
In 2005, the Legislature approved four-year degree opportunities for incoming UWT freshmen and sophomores. The first freshman class was enrolled at the start of the 2006 academic year.
Enrollment numbers keep rising, according to UWT admissions data, from 2,180 students in 2006 to a record-high headcount of 4,501 students for the 2014-2015 school year.
The school has awarded more than 17,000 degrees and continues to expand its courses, degrees and certificate programs.
3. Conducts significant research
Since its inception, UWT has grown its research arm that now touts some of the world’s leaders in their respective fields.
Consider the Institute of Technology. It’s helping create a cybersecurity cluster in the South Sound that sends technology graduates to businesses such as Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon. The UWT has stepped up its outreach to former military service members with national security clearances or training in protecting information networks.
Or consider the school’s Center for Urban Waters, which opened in 2010.
Joel Baker, the center’s science director, is internationally known in his field and has drawn research grants to the center. The outside money is spent on scientists, based in Tacoma, who are working on ways to clean up water and prevent future pollution — two scenarios critical for the health of Puget Sound.
The center brings together the city of Tacoma environmental resources office, the Puget Sound Partnership and UWT scientists who make up the Puget Sound Institute, the research arm of the Puget Sound Partnership.
The work being done at Urban Waters, the Institute of Technology and elsewhere at UWT has implications beyond the scientific world. It also can shape Tacoma’s economic growth — if not right now, then hopefully in the future.
“From an economic development perspective, you want your public research university doing world-class research,” said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
“Globally recognized research happens here, and that’s attractive to companies,” Kendall said.
The school also collaborates with long-entrenched employers in Pierce County. It has worked with MultiCare Health System for roughly three years on data analysis related to congestive heart failure patients.
The partnership has allowed MultiCare to reduce hospital visits for patients and grow a pipeline of local talent ready for jobs after graduation, said Florence Chang, MultiCare’s executive vice president.
4. Has a diverse student body
From students right out of high school to working single moms and military veterans making the transition out of uniform, UWT’s student body is a mirror of the South Sound community.
Here’s a glimpse of the student body by the numbers:
▪ 94 percent of students hail from Washington state.
▪ 81 percent are full-time students.
▪ More than 50 percent of full-time students work at a paying job more than 15 hours a week.
▪ 70 percent of students receive financial aid.
▪ 12 percent of students receive financial aid using military GI Bill benefits.
▪ 68 percent of freshmen are the first in their families to work toward a college degree.
5. Forges community partnerships
Community involvement is the backbone of UWT, from the way the school works with local K-12 public schools to create a college-going culture to the way it connects graduates with local employers.
Tacoma has historically struggled with complex social problems, a high dropout rate and a low percentage of students moving on to higher education.
Pathways to Promise was created to address these issues. The program targets students from kindergarten to 12th grade to make higher education an attainable goal.
Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno has pushed the program and received reinforcement from UWT.
“They are doing direct services to our kids,” Santorno said of UWT’s role. “I’ve worked with a lot of universities from an urban school setting. It’s one the most rich partnerships that I’ve been a part of.”
The number of Tacoma students admitted to UWT has gone up since 2006, when the first freshman class was enrolled. The total number of homegrown enrolled students that year was 25. Preliminary information indicates that number this year will be 84 students.
UWT also partners with area community colleges and their transfer students, and has created a relationship with Joint Base Lewis-McChord to help transitioning service members move into the civilian workforce.
Students enrolled in schools such as UWT’s Institute of Technology, Milgard School of Business and its education and urban studies program benefit from UWT’s partnerships with local businesses that provide internships and job opportunities.
The school also partners with regional nonprofits including the Boys & Girls Club of South Puget Sound, Tacoma Children’s Museum and the YMCA, which recently built a student center downtown.
FIVE PEOPLE WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE
1. Dawn Lucien: Last year, UWT renamed its grandest conference room after Dawn Lucien, who was president of the group that helped establish the branch campus.
“We are standing here in this amazing revitalized downtown core because Dawn Lucien was part of our community,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said at the dedication ceremony.
Serving as a volunteer lobbyist, Lucien worked with other Tacoma leaders to persuade state legislators to establish UWT.
But the former Tacoma city councilwoman and utility board member didn’t stop there. She then advocated for the money needed to build the campus, a role she continues today as the university strives to fill its 46-acre footprint.
Lucien has been a key player in revitalizing downtown Tacoma and preserving its history for more than 30 years, including renovations of the Pantages Theater in the early ’80s and the reopening of Union Station as a federal courthouse in the early ’90s.
2. William W. Philip: The location of the UWT campus can be credited to William “Bill” Philip, founder and former CEO of Columbia Bank. In 1990, he and fellow businessman George Russell spearheaded a $1 million fundraising effort to bring the school to downtown Tacoma.
Philip’s bank put $250,000 in an endowment to secure a site downtown. He then invited Tacoma’s business leaders to a meeting. As the story goes, he said they couldn’t leave until they ponied up money for the “founders endowment.”
The $1 million goal was met within a few days. Philip took it to UW’s president, offering the money with one condition: The school be built on 46 acres in downtown Tacoma instead of a proposed location near Tacoma Community College.
To make sure land was available, Philip orchestrated a plan to quietly buy options on downtown property before speculation drove up prices.
He has remained an active supporter of the university, such as by raising money for scholarships.
One of the main assembly halls on campus is named in his honor.
3. Pierce County Legislative Mafia: In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of South Sound legislators held power positions in Olympia.
They, along with then-Gov. Booth Gardner, who hailed from Tacoma, were able to push through legislation needed to create the first UW branch campuses.
Their relentless support for that other other issues that benefited the South Sound earned them the nickname “Pierce County Mafia.”
State political leaders involved included Brian Ebersole, Wayne Ehlers, Ted Bottiger, Dan Grimm, George Walk, Ruth Fisher, Art Wang and Marc Gaspard.
Ebersole, who later worked as Tacoma mayor and Bates Technical College president, was proud to be a part of the mafia. He was speaker of the House and House majority leader in the years when branch-campus legislation was moving through Olympia.
“From my point of view it was a foregone conclusion where they were going to be,” he said of the various UW and WSU branch locations. “They were going to be where the majority leaders hailed from.”
4. Herb Simon: Tacoma businessman Herb Simon has played an integral role in UWT’s establishment and advancement.
In 2001, he lobbied the Legislature to appropriate the money needed to create the school’s Institute of Technology. And he worked with Bill Philip to raise nearly $4 million to invest in the institute.
Four years later, he led another lobbying effort in Olympia with Columbia Bank CEO Melanie Dressel to get four-year status for UWT.
Simon has also co-chaired a drive to establish UWT scholarships for students who are the first in their families to attend college and served on the UWT advisory board and the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. He also represents the South Sound on the University of Washington Board of Regents, a post he’s held for 10 years.
5. Debra Friedman: Debra Friedman’s history with UWT is shorter than most, but her impact was great.
Friedman was the fifth chancellor in school history when she served from April 2011 to January 2014. Within months of starting the job, she launched a fundraising campaign to provide scholarship help to cash-strapped students facing a 20-percent tuition and fee increase. She also was the person who established UWT’s brand as an urban-serving university, one that leverages its brainpower and economic power to serve the South Sound.
She died last year, shortly after announcing she had lung cancer and taking a leave of absence.
Her legacy includes establishing partnerships with area schools to create a college-going culture. She also worked with Joint Base Lewis-McChord to create programs to support veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce.
FIVE NOTABLE DATES
February 1987: UWT wouldn’t exist if not for Washington State University. Then-UW President William Gerberding became interested in Tacoma only after he learned WSU’s president Sam Smith took a helicopter ride over the city to scout potential branch campus sites in February 1987. Gerberding couldn’t stand the thought of WSU opening an urban campus so close to UW’s home base.
Oct. 1, 1990: The first day of school was held in temporary leased space at the Perkins building at 11th and A streets. A total 187 students enrolled. The only degree offered was liberal studies. Two years later, degrees in nursing and education were added, followed by business in 1993. Today seven academic programs offer 33 bachelor’s degrees, nine masters degrees and one doctoral degree.
June 14, 1991: The school’s first commencement was held; four students graduated.
September 1997: UWT opened at its permanent location on Pacific Avenue.
Sept. 26, 2006: After serving transfer and graduate students for 15 years, the first freshman class was admitted to UWT. Just under 200 freshman joined more than 2,000 juniors, seniors and graduate students. Today roughly 25 percent of undergraduate students are freshmen and sophomores.
FIVE GOALS FOR THE FUTURE
1. Expand enrollment to serve demand: UW Tacoma’s urban-serving mission is to continue to expanding high-ed access to South Sound residents and beyond. Enrollment is predicted to rise 4 percent a year through 2017.
School leaders are currently working on enrollment forecasts for 2017-2027.
2. Grow student housing: While predominately a commuter school, the university wants to build more student housing. There are 125 students in managed housing now; UWT officials hope that will climb to 325 students by 2017.
Once the 350-person capacity is reached, a second residence hall will be built for an additional 300 to 400 students.
3. New degree programs: This fall a bachelor of science in mathematics degree will be added to the interdisciplinary arts and sciences program. A bachelor of science degree in biomedical science is planned for fall 2016 to target pre-med students. Additional undergraduate degrees are planned in electrical engineering, cyber operations and urban design, as well as graduate degrees in community planning, business analytics, environmental science and health care leadership.
Community leaders are raising money and campaigning to establish a program of the UW Law School in Tacoma.
4. Faculty research as a driver for economic development: Expanded enrollment and the new science degree programs will require more faculty. Officials say they’re bringing on 15 more faculty members for the coming academic year, with four to six additional faculty needed in biomedical sciences over the next four years.
5. Growing its footprint: When fully built out, UWT will occupy 46 acres downtown between 17th and 21st streets and Pacific and Tacoma avenues. Currently the campus only uses one-third of its footprint, with most buildings wedged between Pacific and Jefferson avenues from 17th to 21st.
The school owns 80 percent of the property in its footprint, but will require additional funding from the Legislature to purchase the remaining 20 percent. As it grows it will extend uphill, stopping at Tacoma Avenue South.
FIVE THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT UWT
1. Chihuly bartered art for rent: You might know that Dale Chihuly’s Chinook Red Chandelier, a 19-foot-tall glass installation, hangs in the school’s Snoqualmie Library tower. What you might not know is how the university acquired the artwork.
The Tacoma artist offered it in lieu of payment for several years of lease payments on a warehouse building where he and his staff stored glass and worked on installations. The agreement was made after UWT purchased the warehouse that Chihuly was using.
2. Fragment of history: Before renovating the West Coast Grocery building, architects from LMN Architects examined it. They discovered a wooden shelf bracket at a window overlooking Pacific Avenue. On the bracket were written entries dating to Tacoma’s Depression era. The entries included personal records of people who used the space. The bracket remained in place for more than 60 years.
Among reports of weather, births and deaths are some more ominous notes: “Saturday Jan 9 1932 Fred Hopping Laid Off after 30 years of service” and “June 28 (19)32 Two Banks in Tacoma Closed Doors.”
3. Italian-American community center: The Pagni & Lenti building, the wedge-shaped building at Pacific Avenue and South 17th Street, served as an Italian grocery store shortly after it was built in 1890. It became the hub of the local Italian immigrant community. The building is owned by UWT but is being renovated to house Elemental Pizza.
4. Echo Chamber: Want to hear yourself talk? Stand at the top of the UWT grand staircase by the recently erected “W,” where 19th Street intersects with Jefferson Avenue. To hear the effect, stand up against the east face of the “W,” face down the stairs with your head lined up with the central part of the “W.” Speak, or sing, and listen to your voice echo in an odd way.
5. UW Tacoma is older than UW Seattle: Well, sort of. While the school is only 25 years old, one of its buildings predates UW’s Denny Hall, the first building on the Seattle campus.
The building was completed in 1889 and served as a hotel for railroad patrons. Investor Col. John Pinkerton added the brick and cast iron building to his wood-framed Massasoit Hotel. The hotel was consumed by fire in 1934, but the addition remained.
Accounting firm Moss Adams restored the Pinkerton Building in 1982 . UWT acquired it in 2001 and further renovated it.
UW Seattle’s Denny Hall was completed in 1895, six years after Pinkerton’s addition was built.