A prominent local developer has demanded that Tacoma mayoral candidate Jim Merritt stop using images of and references to the Point Ruston project in his campaign materials, including a video recently posted to the Merritt campaign’s Facebook page.
Last week, attorneys for Point Ruston developer Loren Cohen sent a cease-and-desist letter to Merritt, a longtime architect who is running for the second time after an unsuccessful bid in 2009. The letter contends Merritt habitually overstates his role in the development of Point Ruston.
Merritt this week maintained that his work made what became Point Ruston possible. He also said he won’t respond to the letter.
Merritt is facing off against Victoria Woodards, a former two-term city councilwoman and former Tacoma Urban League president. He was the top vote-getter in the August primary, in which former Public Disclosure Commission director Evelyn Lopez took third and was bumped from the Nov. 7 general election.
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The video, in which Merritt claims to have designed and led projects including Point Ruston, angered Cohen, whose firm bought the formerly contaminated property from Asarco and developed it into a multiuse waterfront attraction with restaurants, a movie theater, and apartments and condos.
In the video, Merritt touts several landmark Tacoma projects he’s had a hand in across several decades.
“I’ve been lucky to design and lead some of Tacoma’s most visible, recognizable projects, from Union Station, to bringing the University of Washington downtown, to our beautiful new future at Point Ruston,” Merritt says. As he speaks, video rolls of him standing in front of Union Station and the entrance to the university, and the viewer sees brief footage from a drone flying over Point Ruston at twilight.
Cohen contends Merritt had no direct involvement in the development of Point Ruston, despite the candidate’s repeated claims in stump speeches, public forums and in written campaign materials.
In the cease-and-desist letter, attorney Steven J. Willock says that claim is also front and center in the Pierce County Voter’s Guide.
“I have spent my entire career making Tacoma an exceptional city to live, work and raise a family,” Merritt’s voters guide entry says. “My leadership made Point Ruston, the Foss Waterway, and Tacoma Union Station possible, providing opportunity for family-wage jobs and preserving local landmarks.”
In the letter, Willock says Merritt is attempting to capitalize on Point Ruston’s success to sway voters as he runs for mayor.
“Such claims are false, misleading, constitute the illegal passing off of yourself as the architect of Point Ruston, the conversion of and otherwise illegal intent to trade upon and benefit from the goodwill of Point Ruston, LLC, and the infringement of Point Ruston’s common and registered trademark rights,” Willock wrote.
Merritt’s role, before Point Ruston
In interviews this week, Merritt acknowledged that he didn’t design Point Ruston but said his work helped make the future development possible.
Merritt worked for Asarco in the early phases of the property’s redevelopment, starting in 1993. Among his contributions were developing a master plan for the property, negotiating a municipal agreement between the town of Ruston, city of Tacoma and Metro Parks, and overseeing the environmental impact statement. He led community visioning meetings, negotiated with the different municipalities, and helped develop a concept for the property’s rebirth.
“Things do evolve and change and this is perfectly fine. We just set the table for better things to happen, and I’m very happy with that,” Merritt said.
“I don’t disagree it’s not the same footprint. I know it’s not. You could see there are some threads that are there, but … when you have a master plan and go through implementation, things do come up. I would expect that. That doesn’t bother me at all. It doesn’t eliminate the fact that the groundwork was done to make it possible.”
It was years after Merritt’s work was completed that Cohen and his father’s company, MC Construction, bought the property and began work to develop it, Cohen said. He said Merritt never worked on any aspects of the design after they purchased the property, and his master plan, tri-party agreement, and environmental impact statement were eventually superseded by subsequent work.
“His footprint was obliterated from it,” Cohen said.
Cohen and his wife, Holland, are major supporters of Woodards and have contributed $2,000 apiece to her mayoral campaign. His father, Mike Cohen, also has given $1,250 to her campaign, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.
Merritt pointed that out in a recent interview, noting that the election for Tacoma’s next mayor is less than a month away.
“It’s politics,” Merritt said. “He’s maxed out as the highest donor to my opponent, and so that’s a matter of fact.”
Whose drone footage?
In the letter to Merritt, Cohen’s attorney also says the few seconds of drone footage of Point Ruston that are used in the campaign video belong to Point Ruston, and that the footage was used without permission.
Merritt’s camp disputes that.
A volunteer told The News Tribune this week he shot the video on June 11, 2016, before Merritt had even announced he was running for mayor. He offered up the footage when Merritt’s campaign was producing the campaign video.
The volunteer’s footage, shown to a reporter, seems to be taken at the same time of day as the drone footage in the campaign video, with similar cloud pattern and a similar sweeping view of Point Ruston and the water.
Merritt has said he won’t be responding to the cease-and-desist letter.
Among its demands: that he stop using the disputed Point Ruston video footage, request a retraction and correction to his Pierce County Voter’s Guide entry, ask The News Tribune to publish a retraction and correction to claims he made about his involvement in Point Ruston that were published in a July editorial, and “cease and desist from all further use and reference to Point Ruston in connection with your business and/or mayoral candidacy.”
Cohen said Wednesday he had not received a response from Merritt, and that his attorneys are moving forward to request a temporary restraining order against him.