Pierce County Councilman Rick Talbert had flashbacks as he watched the implosion of Northwest Innovation Works’ bid to build a methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma.
It took him back to a campaign on the Tacoma City Council a dozen years ago that stymied a condominium development near the port over fears that a residential project would slowly undermine Pierce County’s manufacturing core.
His side won, putting up obstacle after obstacle until developer Mike Cohen sold land on the east side of Foss Waterway and moved on to his project at Point Ruston.
This time, the pro-industry coalition that blocked Cohen’s condo proposal could not buy enough time for Northwest Innovation Works to even finish its environmental review despite the promise of more than 200 hundred jobs at the port and a significant boost to local property, sales and business taxes.
Now Talbert is among the local business and political leaders who are trying to figure out what the project’s failure portends for the future of Pierce County’s industrial hub.
They don’t say they want a new methanol plant, but they’re looking for a way to maintain the port’s historic role as a job-generating sector while also respecting the priorities of the environmental activists who rallied to block Northwest Innovation Works.
Talbert, who supported the completion of the methanol plant’s environmental review but was neutral on the plant itself, said the area’s economy is at stake.
“Our community is one that was built on industrial jobs, and as far as I’m concerned, our future is still in that area. We need to be working to promote good, industrial, family-wage jobs,” Talbert said.
In the wake of the methanol plant’s demise, business groups around Tacoma are talking about conducting an educational campaign to stress the port’s importance. Tacoma City Council members, meanwhile, are floating the idea of imposing new land-use regulations on the port so they can shape the kind of business proposals that may move forward.
And leaders at the port say they want to hear from the public before they begin in earnest to seek a new development proposal for the long-vacant, 90-acre former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site eyed by Northwest Innovation Works.
They don’t want a repeat of the public relations debacle Northwest Innovation Works ignited.
“I don’t know what the expectation of the public is,” port Chief Executive Officer John Wolfe said. “I think we’re still trying to sort that out, and the best way for us to do that is to create some forums in which we have some further outreach to the public so we understand what their expectations are.”
The surprise he and other port leaders have expressed in recent months reflects the failure of a project that came to Tacoma with the backing of Gov. Jay Inslee and that fit the industrial zoning requirements for a large site inside the port, usually signs that a proposal would sail through the development process.
If you have a community that’s against everything, it’s awfully hard to recruit businesses that want to come here.
Port of Tacoma Commissioner Don Johnson
Like Wolfe, activists who protested the Northwest Innovation Works proposal say they’re retrenching as they gather ideas about what they’d like to see at the port.
“We are looking at all of his, hoping for a new vision,” said Claudia Riedener of the anti-methanol group Red Line Tacoma. “We are for jobs, but we want something (environmentally) sustainable.”
Although Northwest Innovation Works had cited public uproar for its decision in February to put the project’s environmental review on hold, the company insisted last week that mass protests did not weigh on its decision to cancel it. But port proponents worry the activists may have left a lasting imprint.
“If you have a community that’s against everything, it’s awfully hard to recruit businesses that want to come here,” Port Commissioner Don Johnson said. “Manufacturing is what pays. We want all the stuff people make, but we want them to make it someplace else. It is concerning to a new company that wants to come to town.”
Focus on fossil fuels
At a minimum, the project’s failure may reinforce a signal that fossil fuel-dependent enterprises face serious political obstacles if they plan to develop sites in the Northwest.
Wolfe noted that the methanol protests closely followed last summer’s activism targeting Shell Oil’s plan to dock an Arctic drilling rig at the Port of Seattle. Energy-related industries likely took notice of both developments, he said.
Northwest Innovation Works’ proposal included significant water and energy use, potentially consuming 10 million gallons of water a day in the production of methanol for plastics manufacturers based in China.
It also could have delivered millions of dollars in new tax revenue to the city and Pierce County, as well as potentially reduced greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale by offsetting dirtier coal-fired methanol production in China. The city of Tacoma, for example, is staring at a deficit of $3 million to $10 million dollars as it heads into its budget-writing season early this summer.
At city hall, Councilmen Ryan Mello and Robert Thoms want to get ahead of the next port development proposal by organizing joint meetings between the City Council and the Port Commission to set a shared vision for the city’s industrial future. Both plan to work with City Manager T.C. Broadnax, and they may turn to the city Planning Commission early on.
Last week, they joined in a unanimous vote at the council adopting a new environmental action plan for Tacoma. It calls on the city to take steps to reduce water use, cut greenhouse gas emissions and employ more solar panels in producing energy.
“We’re not going to have coffee shops and condos in the middle of the Port of Tacoma, but here’s the thing, industry doesn’t have to be antithetical to health or sustainability,” said Councilman Anders Ibsen.
I’m of the mind that we want to have jobs that aren’t of our polluting past, and we have an opportunity to be really clear about the kinds of jobs we want.
Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello
Thoms in March wrote an opinion column in The News Tribune in which he argued the city may want a “less industrial” future at the port. He had earlier suggested that the city could stop the methanol project by rezoning the property. Such suggestions — as well as the length of the environmental review process and the complexity of developing a brownfield — were the reasons Godley cited for the cancellation.
Mello had maintained a neutral stance on the proposal until Northwest Innovation Works’ announcement last week. Now, he’s more outspoken about considering new land-use regulations for the port.
“I’m of the mind that we want to have jobs that aren’t of our polluting past, and we have an opportunity to be really clear about the kinds of jobs we want,” he said, listing aerospace manufacturing as the kind of business proposal that may work well at the port.
Resistance to rezoning
Other council members say the failure of the methanol proposal may have effectively set land-use policy without the imposition of new planning rules. They’re wary of placing new regulations on industrial land, and they say the political uproar would not necessarily carry over to a new project.
“You had a major player take a look at it and see that it’s not feasible. With them withdrawing, them saying an urban, industrial area is not the right area, they’ve already through precedent reset land use-policy in the port,” City Councilman Marty Campbell said.
Councilman Joe Lonergan said the city should be open to many kinds of proposals for the Kaiser site. He said the port has been looking for a business to develop it for than a decade, and it has not yet found a workable proposal.
The city’s two main business lobbies, the Economic Development Board and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, likewise are reluctant to rezone industrial land in the port.
“We don’t want to rezone and lose our industrial lands,” Chamber President Tom Pierson said.
Those groups are aiming to get the public more familiar with the kind of work that takes place at the port now so residents have a sense of what modern manufacturing looks like. Both groups will have a seat at the table as boosters for local industry if the City Council and Port Commission take steps to set guidelines for the kind of businesses they want to recruit for the Kaiser site.
They say the vacant site remains an attractive one because of its access to a deep water port and rail lines. Within the next 13 years, a $2 billion extension to state Route 167 should improve access for trucks, too.
“The opportunity is ripe because we don’t have a specific project in front of us right now that can get in the way of that conversation, so that’s the silver lining, Economic Development Board president Bruce Kendall said. “There’s nothing to fight over.”
Yes, there was public pressure, but I’ll go back to Northwest Innovation Works’ own statements. They say that didn’t factor in their decision. It really isn’t a stretch for me to believe that Northwest Innovation Works wasn’t that concerned with public opinion. I will take them at their word that this was a business decision.
Tacoma City Councilman Marty Campbell
More outreach next time
Wolfe and port commissioners say they have not yet set a meeting with the City Council members, although they said they’re open to one. They’re also looking for ways to engage with residents early on so they’re not blindsided again by protests late in a development process.
That may mean embracing social media. The port followed state open government law in advancing the methanol proposal, and The News Tribune wrote about the project several times over the past two years, but it did not capture the public’s attention until last fall.
“We’re going to go over and above, whatever we do. The last thing we want to do is to make it seem like we are hiding something from the community, because we never did,” Port Commissioner Dick Marzano said.
Marzano questioned whether some of the port’s longtime businesses, such as a pulp mill and an oil refinery, would be able to start their business permits in the face of the activism Northwest Innovation Works sparked.
He’s concerned the next round may focus on Puget Sound Energy’s proposal to build a liquid natural gas production and peak-shaving site at the port. He says it’s an environmentally friendly project because it will make comparably clean LNG available to ships passing through the port that normally run on diesel. Some members of Red Line Tacoma, the group that drew attention to the methanol plant, have already turned their attention to opposing the PSE proposal.
In the methanol autopsy, port supporters across the spectrum said backers of the next proposal will have to answer questions from the public more effectively than Northwest Innovation Works did. That’s why they say the activism that seemed to slow and then kill the methanol plan may not carry over to the next proposal.
“Yes, there was public pressure, but I’ll go back to Northwest Innovation Works’ own statements. They say that didn’t factor in their decision. It really isn’t a stretch for me to believe that Northwest Innovation Works wasn’t that concerned with public opinion. I will take them at their word that this was a business decision,” Campbell said.