Civic initiatives started by former News Tribune publisher still active today

Newspaperman William L. Honeysett, who died Sunday in Tacoma of natural causes at age 77, worked at The News Tribune for less than a decade but in that time helped drive initiatives aimed at rebuilding downtown that still are active today.

One of the former News Tribune publisher’s endeavors was forming the Executive Council for Greater Tacoma.

“Bill Honeysett left a legacy, and we have to follow in those footsteps,” Herb Simon, a previous president of the executive council, said of one of its founders.

Since its inception in 1987, the council has played an active role in the revitalization of the city’s downtown. But it was the work it did in the early 1990s that laid the foundation for its future successes.

Solidifying the city’s performing arts scene was one of the council’s first priorities, followed by bringing a public education component with the establishment of the University of Washington Tacoma.

The council had a goal of bringing more museums and restaurants to downtown, making the city a place where people would want to live and work.

“Bill’s contributions – in just eight years as publisher – are phenomenal in their breadth and impact,” News Tribune Publisher David Zeeck said Monday. “He was partly responsible for Tacoma’s revived theater district and the UWT – the twin anchors of our present downtown.”

Honeysett formed the executive council by bringing together influential leaders and friends. Founders included George Weyerhaeuser, CEO of Weyerhaeuser Co.; George Russell, CEO of Russell Investment Group; and Bill Philip, Puget Sound Bank CEO.

At the time, downtown Tacoma was filled with neglected buildings and was marred by crime, drugs and prostitution. Many people were reluctant to work or live there.

The executive council saw its political and financial muscle as a driver to change that.

Honeysett and the group set their sights on their first project: the Tacoma Actors Guild, which was going through a financial crisis and wanted theater space.

“He felt the arts was very much a part of growing a community,” said Simon, a Tacoma real estate and investment businessman. He joined the council after Honeysett left, but knew him from his civic involvement.

“He was a cultured individual,” Simon said. “People liked to rally around him.”

Honeysett’s ability to bring people together is why the then-under-the-radar executive council was so successful, Simon said.

The establishment of a Tacoma branch of the UW would not have happened without the work of the council, said Simon, who sits on the university’s board of regents.

Honeysett’s position as The News Tribune’s publisher afforded him visibility in the community, but his persona is what drew people to him, Simon said.

“He was very self-effacing,” he said. “His humility was 100 percent.”

Zeeck credited Honeysett with helping save minor league baseball in Tacoma and leading a crusade for environmental changes that virtually eliminated the “aroma of Tacoma,” an odiferous byproduct of paper-making.

He also brought the American Leadership Forum to Tacoma, which in 20 years has brought more than 400 for-profit and not-for-profit leaders together in annual classes that teach leadership training and produce community projects.

“He even helped us begin to recognize that the South Sound was a cohesive economic center and not just a collection of isolated cities and towns,” Zeeck said.

Honeysett used his role as publisher to cause change in the community, said Cathy Brewis, who worked with Honeysett during her 36 years at The News Tribune. Brewis worked in community relations and as a senior executive in a variety of positions.

“Bill believed that the newspaper had an important role to play in supporting and improving the community,” she said. “He didn’t take a lot of credit; he didn’t need a lot of credit. He wanted to do it.”

Beyond trying to revitalize Tacoma, including trying to change its stinky “aroma of Tacoma” reputation, Honeysett also made significant changes at The News Tribune during his eight years at the paper.

Honeysett was instrumental in the sale of The News Tribune from its then family-owned operation to McClatchy Newspapers Inc. He joined the newspaper in 1983, serving as president until the paper’s 1986 sale to McClatchy, when he was named publisher.

He helped transition the newspaper from an afternoon edition to a morning edition, introduced color comics, had “Tacoma” dropped from the name to reflect the paper’s coverage beyond Pierce County’s largest city, and saw the transition from typewriters and typesetting to computers and digital layouts.

“It was a tremendous effort, and it took a lot of leadership and attention to detail,” said former editor and editorial page editor John Komen. Komen retired in 1995 after 19 years with the paper.

“He was an active publisher; everyone knew him,” Komen said.

Honeysett served as publisher of The News Tribune until 1991, when he was promoted to vice president of operations for McClatchy Newspapers Inc. In February 1994 he was promoted to executive vice president of McClatchy, gaining responsibility for all McClatchy operations. He retired four months later.

Raised on a farm in Wenatchee, Honeysett made a life in newspapers, serving as publisher of the San Bernardino Sun in California and a former regional president for the Gannett Co.

“The mark of Bill’s extraordinary leadership is that its influence continues to grow a full generation after his career took him away from Tacoma,” Zeeck said.