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Chambers Bay: It took an ice age, several mining companies and one official’s determination

The day the Robert Trent Jones II design team first visited the old Steilacoom gravel mine, whatever promise the place might have had as a golf course was far from obvious.

After more than a century of mining, the sluiced-out crater looked more like a Superfund site than a place for a U.S. Open Championship golf tournament.

“It was desolate — kind of a moonscape,” remembered Bruce Charlton, chief design officer on the Trent Jones team.

“There was still mining equipment sitting around,” he said. “There was a conveyor belt, a couple of trestles and bunches of stockpiles. It had just been kind of left.”

But two things about the site so excited Charlton and the rest of his team that — as Charlton tells it — they soon were charging up and down sand piles and rolling around on the dunes like excited kids.

Part of what got them was the view — a stunning panorama of Puget Sound, punctuated by Anderson, Fox and McNeil islands and the Olympic Mountains.

“Everywhere you looked, the water was right there,” Charlton said.

Almost as important, he said, was the fact that the 233-acre site was nothing but sand — a golf architect’s best friend.

When Pierce County bought the land mined by Lone Star Northwest, it retained the mining permit, which meant that whoever designed the course would have carte blanche to bulldoze, scrape and pile the surface into whatever configurations they wanted.

“It was kind of like being kids in a sandbox, except better,” Charlton said.

“Basically what we had was an open canvas that was all sand. You give a golf architect that, and they start salivating.”

That was in 2003 — just 12 years ago.

Now, with the start of the 2015 U.S. Open Golf Championship just hours away, with hotels full and thousands of golf tourists opening their wallets for $100 Chambers Bay polo shirts and $30 Chambers Bay commemorative drinking glasses, the transformation from gravel pit to world class golf course seems almost surreal.

In the realm of public land development — especially projects wrestled though the messy arena of representative democracy — unmitigated success stories are rare.

But if the week unfolds as all signs indicate it will, it appears Chambers Bay is exactly that.

Not only is the golf course expected to be an economic success, it’s also an environmental reclamation success.

Despite high greens fees, it’s also a success for public recreation: It’s helping pay for a new regional park — bigger than Point Defiance — with 2 miles of public beach access.

The story of how it happened is one of determined leadership, shrewd marketing and a string of coincidences that, in retrospect, makes the project seem almost blessed.

GEOLOGY

The sand that so attracted the Trent Jones firm — and 56 other golf architecture companies that competed for the Chambers Bay design contract — was a product of the last ice age.

As the Earth warmed and cooled over past millennia, sheets of ice as much as a mile thick periodically covered Western Washington, advancing and retreating like the tide.

The most recent glacial advance and retreat — between about 18,000 and 13,000 years ago — is called the Vashon phase, for deposits first noted on Vashon Island. It’s the one that left the sand that’s now being hacked by the world’s best golfers.

At its peak, the Vashon glacier was a mile thick at the Canadian border and gradually tapered to its terminus just short of Chehalis. At Chambers Bay, the ice was about a half mile thick.

The glacier sat on the Puget Sound region for about 1,500 years until a warming trend sent it shrinking back to the Arctic.

As the glacier moved, its tremendous weight cracked and scraped the bedrock beneath it. During its retreat, the glacier left great mounds and moraines of pulverized rock in its path.

North of Steilacoom the glacier was especially productive: There it left a mountain of sand and gravel two miles long and hundreds of feet deep.

This photo of the Pioneer Sand and Gravel Company gravel pit was taken in November of 1949. The large gravel pit was located in Steilacoom, adjacent to what is now University Place; their offices were in Seattle. The company specialized in sand, gravel, building materials and
This photo of the Pioneer Sand and Gravel Company gravel pit was taken in November of 1949. The large gravel pit was located in Steilacoom, adjacent to what is now University Place; their offices were in Seattle. The company specialized in sand, gravel, building materials and "Tru-Mix" concrete. Some years later, the pit and the land surrounding it became part of Chambers Creek Properties. (Richards Studio Collection, courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library.)
Pierce County was first interested in the property while looking for a spot for a sewage treatment plant. (Dean J. Loepfler, staff photographer.)
Pierce County was first interested in the property while looking for a spot for a sewage treatment plant. (Dean J. Koepfler, staff photographer.)

MINING

The Steilacoom deposit was exceptionally clean and strong rock, making it ideal for mixing with cement to make concrete.

The deposit had the added advantage of being directly on the shore of Puget Sound, which made the sand and gravel relatively easy to transport.

using hydraulic sluices and conveyor systems, miners moved material across the mine, running it over screens of different diameters to sort it by size. With a boom that reached out over the water, they loaded barges that could take on volumes equivalent to hundreds of trucks.

Traveling with the tides, tugboats easily moved the gravel up through the Tacoma Narrows to construction sites anywhere on the Sound, or out the Strait of Juan de Fuca and down the coast to California and even as far South America.

In more than a century of mining, five companies took about 250 million tons of gravel out of the Steilacoom mine to build roads, sidewalks, building foundations and bridges in Tacoma and Seattle.

The Steilacoom deposit was first used on a large scale in the 1890s, when the federal government began building fortified armor emplacements along Puget Sound shipping routes.

When the forts were completed in 1905, the mine was sold to the Martin Sand & Gravel Co. and five years later to Pioneer Sand & Gravel.

Various gravel companies evolved and merged over the years to eventually become Lone Star Sand & Gravel, which took over the Steilacoom operations in 1959.

At its peak in 1992, Lone Star’s Steilacoom mine had a crew of 60 and was said to be the largest producer of sand and gravel in the United States.

COUNTY GETS INVOLVED

Pierce County first became involved in the property for the most mundane of reasons: It needed land for sewage-treatment facilities.

The county bought a small portion of the mine property in 1979 and built a treatment plant that began operations in 1984.

By 1992, the Chambers Creek Sewage Wastewater Treatment Plant was serving 157,000 people, and country planners projected a need for three times that capacity by 2040.

Plans to expand the plant met with howls of protest from residents of then-unincorporated University Place. They complained about the sight and smell of additional sewage sludge lagoons.

Still, when a deal came up that year that gave the county a chance to buy 210 acres to expand the plant, plus another 400 acres as an open-space buffer, the county leaped at the chance.

In 1993, planners developed a “master site plan” to guide the reclamation and restoration of what then totaled 950 acres along the waterfront.

The plan called for using sewer fees to develop the property incrementally over 50 years. Included was a suggestion that part of the property might be used for a public golf course that, if profitable, could help pay for developing the park.

JOHN LADENBURG

The 50-year time frame struck Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg as way too slow.

Ladenburg, a former Tacoma City Council member and Pierce County prosecuting attorney with a penchant for wearing cowboy boots and a tough-talking, take-no-prisoners manner, was elected in 2000.

Rather than waiting 50 years, he wanted to throw the reclamation process into fast-forward.

He pushed hard for building a “world class” golf course — one that could demand top greens fees and cater to affluent golfers willing to travel and pay top dollar to play on a championship caliber course.

Perhaps, he suggested, it might even attract a U.S. Open tournament.

Last month, at a Chambers Bay U.S. Open publicity event, Ladenburg pointed across the golf course toward the water.

“I literally went down on this beach in 2003 and said, ‘We have to start developing this property,’” he remembered. “I knew if we were going to build something, we were going to have to build something different.”

Ladenburg first presented the concept of a high-end golf course to the County Council in February 2004. His plan was met with skepticism.

Critics, some of whom found Ladenburg imperious and hard to work with, ridiculed the idea as unrealistically grandiose.

They pointed out there was no guarantee the United States Golf Association would have any interest in the course, and, with greens fees likely to be $100 or more, the place would be so expensive that most people in Pierce County could never afford to play there.

“I had huge fights with the County Council,” Ladenburg said. “It was probably the most difficult political thing I’ve ever done.”

What many people didn’t get, Ladenburg said, was the golf course was an economic development plan.

“Even if it just broke even,” he said, “it would still make a lot of money for U.S. because of the spinoffs from tourism, restaurants and hotels.

“Frankly, they didn’t believe it. It had been done in California, but no one had done it in the Northwest. It was a concept people just couldn’t wrap their heads around.”

Despite the initial skepticism, Ladenburg muscled the idea through, surviving at crucial times on 4-3 votes on the seven-member council.

The county borrowed $20.7 million in 2005 to build the course. The bonds were to be paid off over 20 years, using sewer fees.

Ladenburg received recognition at a U.S. Open press day in April, with hundreds of journalists on hand from throughout the country. U.S.GA Director Mike Davis was effusive in his praise of the former county executive.

“It started with John Ladenburg,” Davis said.

Davis looked down at the front row, where Ladenburg (yes, in cowboy boots) sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Robert Trent Jones. As the cameras rolled, Davis addressed the former county executive directly.

“If not for your vision,” he said, “we would not be here. You had naysayers along the way, but you made it happen.”

ROBERT TRENT JONES

Robert Trent Jones remembers visiting Chambers Bay with Ladenburg early on, when it was still an industrial site and a gleam in the county executive’s eye.

“It wasn’t hard to see a golf course,” Jones said, “but it was very hard to see a great golf course.”

The county hired Jones’ firm at a hefty price. His fee was $900,000. But Jones brought a high-status reputation and a quirky, poetic sensibility to the project.

Jones describes his own style of golf architecture as “complex, eclectic and wide ranging — like a jazz musician — like (Fats) Waller or (Dizzy) Gillespie.”

As always, he said, he walked the site to get a feel for it.

“My feet feel the rhythm of the play,” he said.

The view and the sand were immediately attractive, but other aspects of the site made it clear that it would work as a “links style” course — one that harkened to the game’s origins in England and Scotland.

The site was treeless and windy, and Puget Sound’s weather patterns seemed suitable for fescue grasses native to the original golf courses in Great Britain.

Jones was moved to write a poem about the course:

“The gears shift. Dust flows free.

The soil moves near the sea.

Shaping the features from the land

Glazing it with crystal sand.”

USGA INVOLVEMENT

U.S. Open officials paid attention to the project almost from the beginning, as Ladenburg hoped.

“I can remember roughly 10 years ago sitting in my office in Far Hills, New Jersey,” USGA Director Mike Davis said in the days leading up to the 2015 Open. “The phone rang, and it was one of our regional directors who happened to be based on the West Coast.”

“He said, ‘Mike, there’s this site out in the Pacific Northwest that one day might be good enough to host a U.S. Open.’”

It wasn’t unusual for Davis to field calls from people who thought they had USGA-quality courses, so he was understandably skeptical.

“I’m holding the phone out here,” Davis said, extending his arm. “I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard this before.’ ”

But the more he heard, the more interested he became. One thing Chambers Bay had going for it, Davis said, was that it was in the Pacific Northwest.

In 120 years of U.S. Opens, starting in 1895, the tournament had never been played in the Northwest, and the USGA was eager to colonize.

So, Davis said, “Well, keep going here.”

And the rep said, “Well listen, the property is right on the Puget Sound. It’s gorgeous.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” Davis said.

“It’s almost a thousand acres.”

“Really?” Davis said.

And then the rep dropped the clincher.

“Oh, by the way,” he said. “It’s all sand.”

“Anybody who knows anything about golf courses knows that any golf course built on sand is always going to be better than a course not built on sand or heavy soils,” Davis said.

Convinced, Davis began making design suggestions that would make the course even more appealing for championship play.

THE NAME PART OF GAME

Branding and promotion are critical in creating a tournament course, and Ladenburg, Jones’ firm and representatives of Kemper Sports, the management company contracted to manage the course, carefully considered what the name should be.

They wanted something upscale and sophisticated — a name that would signify quality. As county spokesman Dick Ferguson said at the time, the name should be “a combination of words you could use in a clothing line.”

From a list of 17 final possible names that included Puget Dunes, Quarry Dunes, The Links at Puget Dunes, The Olde Ruins Golf Links and — oddly — Wild Canary, they settled on Chambers Bay.

The name wasn’t strictly accurate: The golf course is not on a bay, and there was no historical indication that Thomas M. Chambers, its namesake, ever set foot there.

Chambers settled in the area in 1847 and built a sawmill and a three-story flour mill on what then was called Steilacoom Creek. But his enterprises were a mile and a half south of the golf course property.

But what the Chambers Bay name lacked in accuracy, it made up for in public appeal. The words looked good on golf hats and windbreakers and clicked with the national golf media.

Soon after Chambers Bay opened on June 23, 2007, The New York Times called it “America’s next great golf course.” Golf Magazine heralded it as “Best new course of the year.”

Just seven months later, the USGA announced it would bring not one but two tournaments to Chambers Bay: the U.S. Amateur Championship in 2010 and the U.S. Open in 2015, the latter a potential economic windfall that could be worth millions.

ROUGH START

Despite the opening splash, the golf course had a rough start. It opened on the eve of the Great Recession, and at first it failed to attract enough golfers to pay the bills.

In 2008, its first full year of operation, the course finished with a meager profit of $45,202.

But it lost $1.3 million in 2009, and in 2010 it lost even more — $1.8 million — despite national attention it attracted by playing host to the U.S. Amateur.

The county was forced to lend the course $2.5 million to cover the 2010 loss, plus expenses associated with making course improvements for the U.S. Amateur.

But in 2013, buoyed by the growing U.S. Open buzz, Chambers Bay began paying off. It generated a profit of $382,000 that year and recorded the highest number of rounds played (38,980) in its six-year history.

In 2014, the course recorded a $435,000 profit. Total revenue rose 15 percent to $6.9 million. That included more than $1 million in Chambers Bay merchandise.

REPEAT PERFORMANCES

That’s just the beginning. Estimates of overall economic impact from major sports events are often inflated, but the public relations benefits from a successful tournament would be undeniable.

Reg Jones, senior director of the U.S. Open, estimates the economic impact to the area will be about $148 million.

For Ladenburg, that’s good news, and it’s also personally satisfying.

One of the former County Council members — he wouldn’t say which one — recently approached him and apologized. Ladenburg said.

“He said, ‘I was wrong,’ ” Ladenburg said.

Ladenburg said the former councilman apologized not only for his error in judgment but also for his mean-spirited attitude during the debate.

Meanwhile, with hotels full, restaurants booked and the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson jetting in, Pierce County’s current county executive, Pat McCarthy is looking to the future.

She’s eager to get repeat performances. She said she wants Chambers Bay on the USGA’s regular U.S. Open tournament cycle.

Her goal: “We want this to be the gift that keeps on giving.”

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