Pierce County puts best foot forward with Chambers Bay developer agreement

Runners on the Soundview Trail pass a deer at the north end of Pierce County’s Chambers Creek Properties. The 930-acre site also includes Chambers Bay golf course and, eventually, a planned hotel and resort.
Runners on the Soundview Trail pass a deer at the north end of Pierce County’s Chambers Creek Properties. The 930-acre site also includes Chambers Bay golf course and, eventually, a planned hotel and resort. News Tribune file photo, 2010

Chambers Bay Golf Course and Chambers Creek Regional Park are an exquisite tandem for Pierce County residents and visitors alike. At no time is that more evident than during a long stretch of sunny weather like the South Sound is currently enjoying.

But nothing this beautiful comes for free. The problem at the county-owned site in University Place is that taxpayer bailouts and utility ratepayer subsidies are helping keep it afloat.

Now there’s good reason to hope this priceless 930-acre property will be preserved for generations to come, thanks to the County Council’s decision Tuesday to move forward with the Chambers Bay Hotel and Resort project.

For the council to act on the public-private partnership now, rather than stretch out the suspense for months or years, was the right thing to do. Local development team Absher-Putnam has a bold vision, a sterling reputation and the willingness to take on a risky venture. They’ve been negotiating with the county for 2 ½ years. They need to seize momentum while the economy is hot and financing can be secured.

Approving a ground-lease agreement was a lot messier than the council’s 6-to-1 vote might indicate. Words like “frustrated” and “disappointed” flew freely as council members debated 19 proposed amendments.

That’s democracy in action, and Pierce County is better for having so much passionate input from the public and meticulous scrutiny by elected leaders.

One complaint from some council members: They felt left out of the loop during contract negotiations between county executive staff and the developer. Executive Bruce Dammeier clearly has work to do shoring up communication with the council.

But the biggest flashpoint was Absher-Putnam’s plan to build dozens of extended-stay villas to help make the 190-unit resort pencil out. Long-term residences were never contemplated for this property, according to the critics, led by Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg. They fear the villas will despoil a public park and create what is essentially a private enclave for the well-to-do.

Those concerns are understandable, and Absher-Putnam should fulfill their promise to convert the villas to overnight rentals as quickly as possible.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Chambers Bay has always been a mix of public access and country-club exclusivity. Miles of walking trails and open meadows are bisected by a championship golf course, where it costs up to $159 for a Pierce County resident to play a round, varying by day of week and time of year.

The most spectacular vista on the whole property, by many accounts, is the 9th Hole teebox, accessible only to those who play the course. Ladenburg and others fought to preserve this layout because of its appeal to local golfers and big-spender golf tourists; Absher-Putnam plan to add an amphitheater.

Going forward, it will be critical to maintain an equitable balance between public and private, between open space and economic development, between a community that uses the site for free and resort guests who enable it to operate with a minimum of public subsidies.

The local development team appears well suited for the task.

Absher’s commitment to union workers and apprenticeship programs, and its success on projects ranging from Tacoma Dome Station to the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, has won it rave reviews.

Dan Putnam has deep family roots in Pierce County, including two sons who grew up near Chambers Bay and now play professional golf. When he talks about wanting only the best for his community park, which he calls both a personal “sanctuary” and “national treasure,” he’s believable.

Putnam’s vision goes well beyond resort amenities, and it’s easy to get swept away when he describes it: An extension of the waterfront pedestrian bridge to include a fishing pier and daily moorage. A safe pedestrian trail link between Chambers Creek Park and Chambers Canyon. Additional parking in the lower meadow area. A summer concert series in the new amphitheater. A golf academy building that serves underprivileged kids.

And finally, a series of USGA golf tournaments, including a return of the U.S. Open that attracted millions of eyeballs and dollars to Pierce County in 2015.

Granted, it’s no sure thing. There is substantial risk, just as there was when the developers of Point Ruston began their local legacy multi-use project more than a decade ago.

But the agreement approved this week offers a great chance for a sustainable regional park and world-class economic development in University Place, a city that needs both.