Robyn Denson is running for Gig Harbor Council Position 5. An interview with her opponent, Michelle Matheson, can be found here.
Robyn Denson says her legacy as a Gig Harbor Parks commissioner is not hard to find.
Walk down Harborview Drive, from Skansie Brothers Park to the Austin Estuary, she says, and “I have been involved in some way with every single one of these parks.”
Denson is a longtime community activist who has served four terms on the parks commission, two of them as president. She is running for Gig Harbor City Council in Position 5.
She says parks, even small ones, are one way of preserving the small-town feel of Gig Harbor even as it grows. And she sees managing the city’s burgeoning growth, without stifling its economy, as its biggest challenge.
“That’s why I talk about ‘responsible growth,’ “ she said over coffee at Kimball’s. “As a city, we are required by state law to accept a certain amount of growth. But what kind of growth? We need to plan for that. When all these developments are built out, what’s going to be result?”
The city’s infrastructure — roads, sewers, utilities — haven’t kept pace with development, she said, and that’s one reason for the city’s present traffic problems..
Denson speaks in rapid-fire bursts, with a way of leaning in and widening her eyes as she makes a point. Key words pop out: “Walkability,” “infrastructure,” “shoreline access,” “neighborhoods,” “amenities.”
She wants to bring the old and new parts of the city together, she said.
“The character of Gig Harbor North is different than Gig Harbor downtown,” she said. “The challenge is bringing them together. “We really want one Gig Harbor.”
People and water
Denson, 45, is a real-estate broker and divorced mother of two who came to Gig Harbor in 2005 from Connecticut and, she says, fell in love with the area.
The first couple she and her then-husband met, on a nature outing, immediately invited them to a barbecue, she said.
“We looked at each other,” she recalled. “Do they want to sell us something? Is this a cult? No, we came to realize it’s just the way Northwest people are!”
Denson became a founding member of Harbor Wildwatch, which led to her interest in parks and preservation, she said. She was appointed a parks commissioner in 2008.
On the parks commission, she heard from residents who wanted access to the water.
“They wanted to get down to the water, down to see and feel and touch it,” she said. “They want places to get their kayaks and paddleboards in the water.”
That was the thrust of her work on the parks commission, she said: the beach at Eddon Boat Park, “where kids can actually touch the sand,” the boat access at Ancich Park, the Maritime Pier. “It’s all about making the waterfront accessible,” she said.
The key to managing the city’s residential growth, she says, is to make the new neighborhoods “livable and walkable” by providing amenities, such as grocery stores and restaurants, within walking distance.
She points to Heron’s Key, a development designed for seniors, where a dispute with the city over impact fees has held up a promised grocery store.
“A lot of those folks bought there so they could walk to the store, and they’re upset that that hasn’t happened,” she said.
Denson said she feels strongly about preserving Gig Harbor’s small-town feel.
But, she adds, “I also recognize there is room for developments with services and amenities that increase walkability.”
The six-month moratorium on residential permits, imposed in 2018, didn’t really solve much, she acknowledged, mainly because the big developments that caused the backlash had been in the works for a long time.
But the pause “it did give us a little breathing space,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we’ve learned some things.”
She regrets the loss of experienced planning staff that came with the new mayor and council, but she calls the new planning director, Katrina Knutson, “brilliant.”
Getting to ‘yes.’
Denson said one of her goals is “helping people get to ‘yes.’”
“We need a downtown that sustains small businesses,” she said. “Big-box stores are nice in some places, but you also need lots of small restaurants and cute little stores that bring people downtown.”
Asked what sets her apart from her opponent, Denson pauses.
“Experience,” she says, finally.
Besides her experience on the parks commission, she cites her work as vice-chair of Communities in Schools of Peninsula, as a member of the Peninsula School District’s technical education advisory council.
She’s worked as an emergency medical technician, and retains an interest in the field. She has served on local emergency preparedness and suicide-prevention coalitions.
She also notes that her work as a real-estate broker gives her insights.
“I’m not going on the council as a real-estate broker, but that experience does give me an understanding of what’s going on,” she said.
Denson said she’d like to see more cooperation among council members. “I’m a collaborative person. I like to get people working together. I’m disappointed when I see so many of those 4-3 votes on the council.”
Denson lives in Crescent Valley, at the head of the harbor, with her two children, Truett, 12, and Kacey, 14, both of whom attend Peninsula schools.
She has been campaigning vigorously, appearing at coffees and forums.
And as an avid hiker, she’s cajoled mountaineering friends into planting her campaign signs on the slopes Mount Adams, Mount Baker and Mount Rainier.
There’s also one on Mt. St. Helens.
“I did that one myself,” she said proudly.