Wesley Wenhardt’s favorite part of working at the Foss Waterway Seaport, he says, is seeing the lights of the building from a distance when he’s on a boat out on the water.
“You kind of imagine what it must have been like when you were first approaching as a ship,” he said. “If one of those longshoremen could come back and see what it looks like now, I wonder what they’d say.”
Wenhardt ends his six-year tenure as executive director of the Foss Waterway Seaport this week, but he won’t be leaving the water anytime soon.
He returns to his home country of Canada to direct another museum, the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, also with a strong connection to maritime history.
“I’ve been commuting from Vancouver for six years,” he said, “but I feel as though I’ve done what I can for the Seaport. I think at different times people are suited to different phases of projects, and I think I’ve kind of done what I can.”
The museum is small and new, but Wenhardt says that’s why he likes it.
“I like startups,” he said. “And there’s this startup of a brand new North Vancouver Museum and Archives. It’s similar to here; it’s on the water. We’re going to talk about maritime stories. It’s just a new challenge.”
Wenhardt has led the Seaport through dramatic changes during his term. He said he took the job while he was living in New Zealand, and had never heard of Tacoma before he applied.
In August of 2013 when he arrived, the Seaport only stayed open for two months every year. Holes in the walls let the wind and air seep through the building.
“In the old days, the wind would blow in and it would blow a candle out,” Steve Keller, the president of the Seaport’s board and a member since 2011 recalled.
Wenhardt remembers being able to look through the walls and watch the trains go by.
Under his guidance, the Seaport was soon open year-round, but the building still lacked heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.
“Sometimes it was colder in the building than outside,” Wenhardt said, remembering his first winters. “ It was freezing, so (I wore) heavy socks, (and) long underwear. I had this Eddie Bauer closet, these vests, plaid checks and stuff to stay warm because it was so cold in here.”
The staff set to work renovating the 120-year old wooden warehouse, shoring up holes in the walls, adding windows, air conditioning, and LED lights.
Wenhardt jokes he can remember when the building became heated because “my long underwear purchases dropped.”
Another important transformation involved knocking down the front wall of the building, which was originally brick. The Seaport replaced it with glass, giving the building the distinctive profile it has today.
Keller says he’s proud that the changes all took place without putting the Seaport in debt.
“We’re raised over $26 million to get it to where it is now,” he said. “We owe the bank no money whatsoever, which is great.”
Wenhardt doesn’t like to take credit for what the Seaport has accomplished over the past six years, and is quick to thank staff, donors, and visitors for their enthusiasm.
What he cares about most of all, is sharing his love of the waterfront with other people. He recounted one of his favorite moments from the tall ship festivals that he helped organize at the Seaport.
“Tacoma’s had two big tall ship festivals, and they were real tall ship festivals,” Wenhardt said. “In 2017 we had 25 tall ships come to town along with a massive rubber ducky. That was cool, to see the ships come in at night.”
Wenhardt especially loves to see children excited, and views educational programs as one of the Seaport’s best accomplishments.
“In our eco-kayaking you get an hour and a half of kayaking every day,” he said. “The kids come in and they’re very enthusiastic. Often in history museums you don’t hear shrieks of laughter and joy.”
Building community is one of the gifts Wenhardt has brought to his time at the Seaport.
“I like startups. It’s just kind of nice to make order out of disorder,” he said. “I find that chocolate chip cookies are very useful, and ice cream. It just brings people together.”
According to Keller, Wenhardt has made the Seaport what it is today.
“Wes brought with his talent the ‘let’s get her done attitude,’” he said. “ He basically took a facility that was non-functional and turned it into what it is now.”
The Seaport will see plenty of changes in the upcoming year, starting with a renovation of the boat shop where volunteers craft different types of wooden boats by hand.
The Seaport has also been included in recently passed legislation which turns 3,000 miles of Washington shoreline into a Maritime National Heritage Area.
As part of the legislation, museums and attractions at the shoreline will receive yearly funding to improve and expand upon their projects.
The new Executive Director of the Foss Waterway Seaport will have big shoes to fill. An acting interim director, Dr. Ken Leonard, will take Wenhardt’s place as the search continues.
“I think the Seaport is really poised to grow in the future with its education and its storytelling,” Wenhardt said.