Well past time for Ruston to chill out

The outside of the Frozen Fountain ice skating rink, which opened at Point Ruston Nov. 10 and will continue through the holidays.
The outside of the Frozen Fountain ice skating rink, which opened at Point Ruston Nov. 10 and will continue through the holidays. The News Tribune

The more things change at Point Ruston, the more they stay the same in terms of frosty relations between the project’s gung-ho developers and the City of Ruston’s inhospitable leaders.

The changes at the 97-acre project are largely positive: On the footprint of the once-contaminated Asarco smelter site, a sparkling waterfront community has sprung up with apartments and condos, retail and restaurants, open space and a multiplex theater.

There’s also a growing civic partnership with Tacoma, the larger of Point Ruston’s two host cities. When Tacoma decided this year that its downtown holiday ice rink no longer penciled out, developers Mike and Loren Cohen gamely offered the Grand Plaza at Point Ruston. The rink has drawn festive crowds since it opened there Nov. 10.

If only a fraction of this cooperation existed between the Cohens and Ruston city officials, we’d have some unqualified Christmas cheer. Instead, we’re seeing the reemergence of grudges and distrust dating back more than two years.

The new symbol of division? The ice rink had to be installed in an odd position — what Loren Cohen calls “a cockamamie 45-degree angle” — because the plaza straddles the Tacoma and Ruston city lines, and Ruston’s demands for the rink were prohibitive. Thus, it was downsized and reoriented to avoid touching the Ruston side.

While Tacoma turned around a special-events permit in a matter of days and waived the fee, Ruston demanded a full building permit that would’ve taken several weeks to secure.

A building permit? For a temporary tent over a sheet of ice? Bah humbug.

Ruston leaders seem to have learned nothing from two years ago, when they earned a reputation for ham-handed micromanagement. Meanwhile, Tacoma kept Point Ruston humming toward a series of grand openings, promoting a regulatory “culture of yes” that streamlined permitting without sacrificing safety. That’s the necessary formula when dealing with an assertive developer pushing transformative economic development in the 21st century.

Don’t be shocked if the ice-rink fiasco fuels another round of annexation speculation. Ruston only has itself to blame if critics revive talk of absorbing the whole Point Ruston property into Tacoma.

In early 2015, before Ruston escaped its most recent annexation threat, Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello made a shrewd observation: “This marriage is really over. I don’t think any amount of therapy is going to resolve the differences between Point Ruston and the city of Ruston.”

For a time after that, they tried the therapeutic route: Ruston and Tacoma worked on a draft interlocal agreement to improve communication and smooth the regulatory knots entangling Ruston and the Cohens. It was an act of good faith that, alas, was short-lived.

Perhaps Mello was right; this marriage is so plagued by irreconcilable differences, it’s doomed to fail.

Which is puzzling, when you consider how Point Ruston’s attractions have set cash registers ringing (and tax revenues flowing) in Ruston. On a recent evening at the Ice Cream Social shop, an employee remarked how the ice rink had drawn an unusually large volume of customers.

In a letter to the editor, a Tacoma fire official said his city’s professionals inspected the ice rink, and that Ruston officials were irresponsible to suggest public safety was at risk without their approval. “Instead of casting doubt about this great ice rink, this was a chance for Ruston to support something positive for kids and families,” wrote Ryan Mudie, president of Tacoma’s firefighters union.

We don’t disagree. This Christmas season, families can feel confident as they bundle up, buy hot chocolate, lace up skates and enjoy a few hours at the Frozen Fountain rink.

Occasional stumbles and pratfalls on the ice are inevitable, but on the blooper reel, they can’t top Ruston’s slip-sliding bellyflop into irrelevance.