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Tacoma needs to be careful or maritime jobs might set sail for other cities

Tacoma has lost elements of its industrial maritime base in the past, with the closing of such operations as JM Martinac.
Tacoma has lost elements of its industrial maritime base in the past, with the closing of such operations as JM Martinac. Richards Studio Collection

The maritime business was one of the Puget Sound region’s original industries, and it’s still a big deal around here.

Just the manufacturing slice – boatbuilding and repair and commercial fishing equipment – represents thousands of jobs, many of those with the sort of wages we’re supposedly lusting after to keep the economy humming and to preserve the middle class.

Question is: Do we still want it?

It’s not as though there’s a concerted effort to chase away the maritime industry, as there is these days with anything tainted by association with fossil fuels.

It’s not even a “say one thing, do another” situation, as best illustrated by the state making all the properly appreciative noises about encouraging the life sciences industry even as it raids a dedicated research-and-development fund to prop up the general budget.

But the industry, especially that manufacturing component, faces long-term pressures that will affect where that industry operates in the state.

The diversity of the maritime industry was on full display at the most recent edition of the annual Pacific Marine Expo trade show in Seattle. Washington manufacturers numbered in the dozens, from boatbuilders such as Tacoma’s Modutech Marine to big operations like Vigor, which though based in Portland has yards in Tacoma and Seattle.

Washington boatbuilders build fishing vessels for Alaska, passenger ferries for Puget Sound and the Bay Area, oil-spill response boats for Canada, speedy and maneuverable watercraft for military, law enforcement and fire and rescue applications, tugs and recreational boats up to the size of yachts.

Of course, once you’ve got a boat you need to put stuff on it.

Washington manufacturers make huge plastic bins and totes for seafood, refrigeration and ice-making equipment for keeping that seafood cold, nets and deck winches for getting that seafood into the boat, even electronics for finding the fish to begin with. They make doors, windows and hatches to keep water out.

Business is decent for the manufacturing slice of the maritime industry. A few good years for West Coast fisheries such as Alaska’s Bristol Bay have customers placing orders. (Recapitalization of the North Pacific fishing fleet to replace aging capacity is seen as the next big opportunity.)

Transportation agencies looking to unsnarl traffic congestion are ordering ferries; tourism operations are ordering excursion vessels. All sorts of workboats are in demand. Even yacht construction is recovering, a bit, from the recession.

One of the few short-term concerns heard at the show was the impact of low oil prices on demand for boats to serve Gulf Coast offshore exploration, development and production.

Normally that work would be handled by shipyards on the gulf, but with orders slack there they’ve been going after orders that Northwest yards compete for. Those yards, said one Northwest shipyard operator, can offer lower labor rates, and they’ve snared work that might otherwise stay in the region.

That’s a short-term problem that can be remedied by higher oil prices, which have been creeping up as of late. The regional industry is also vulnerable to short-term phenomena such as bad years for the fishing fleets or governmental spending cutbacks.

The bigger long-term problem for the industry is where it will be allowed to, or can afford to, operate.

For as sizable as the industry is — a Washington Maritime Foundation study counts 17,000 jobs in 2015, which includes Puget Sound Naval Shipyard but not recreational boatbuilding — it tends to be done in industrial areas, out of sight and hence often out of mind from the public.

But it’s not as out of sight or mind as it once was. More urban waterfront is being converted to apartments, condos and offices with great views. The problem is they’re not making any additional urban waterfront property.

The squeeze is already on in places like North Lake Union and the Sodo/Duwamish areas of Seattle. In a video prepared for Seattle’s new mayor by the Manufacturing Industrial Council, one business leader advises that “to keep this industrial community vibrant and not kill it off, we have to keep residential areas from encroaching. The land uses are incompatible.”

Tacoma is already in the thick of the debate over what industrial uses are compatible with the Tideflats. Will boatbuilding and heavy-equipment manufacturing, which can be noisy endeavors, be on the approved list?

The city has lost elements of its industrial maritime base in the past, with the closing of such operations as Tacoma Boat and JM Martinac.

Perhaps it will decide to reinvigorate its presence in that business by recruiting companies for which operating in Seattle is no longer a viable option but want to stay in the Puget Sound region.

Or it might choose to wave as those companies head off to other parts of the state — Port Angeles, Aberdeen/Hoquiam, Anacortes, Bellingham — that have maritime-manufacturing sectors and would like to grow them, and the jobs that tide might wash in.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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