Methanol pause offers time to reflect

Bruce Kendall is president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
Bruce Kendall is president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

It’s always good to take a break when emotions flare. It allows people to regain perspective.

Since Northwest Innovation Works has hit pause on its plans for a methanol manufacturing plant at the Port of Tacoma, citizens and elected officials should take this time to reflect both on the substance of the proposal and on the nature of the conversation.

So far, that conversation barely meets the definition. It has not been worthy of us. It’s been dominated by unsubstantiated claims, empty accusations of corruption and criminality, barely contained xenophobia and outright fear-mongering. It’s sounded more like a modern presidential debate.

Business climate is shaped by many things – tax and regulatory matters are typical topics. But it is also shaped by attitudes. What started as a proposal for a single manufacturing plant that would help make everyday products like glasses, cellphones, fleece jackets and tires has inspired tactics that endanger the future of an essential part of Pierce County’s economy, our manufacturing base.

Methanol opponents are promoting a ballot measure that would require a public vote on every industrial project that would use a public utility after a certain threshold of water consumption. Local union workers are being told by opponents that the 260 manufacturing jobs that could be created by Northwest Innovation Works aren’t “worth it.”

Manufacturing is Pierce County’s fifth-largest industry sector by number of employees. But when you calculate the top sectors by amount of earnings, it jumps to third, state data show. Why? Because manufacturing jobs pay better than those in retail and food services. The jobs that could be created by the methanol facility would make Northwest Innovation Works one of the top 100 private employers in Pierce County.

When you have a job or secure retirement income, it might be easy to think certain new jobs aren’t “worth it.” People without a job see it differently.

Meanwhile, land for industrial operations is growing scarce. A Puget Sound Regional Council report last year showed neighborhoods and offices coming closer and closer to industrial businesses as governments allow a wider range of uses on land that once was exclusively used for industry and the living-wage jobs it provides.

Last year, a majority of the Pierce County Council stepped away from decades of planning and allowed a big box retail development in Frederickson, one of Pierce County’s last dedicated industrial areas. A Tacoma City Council member has loudly suggested the city could rezone the land around the port to make it harder for industrial operations. (Robert Thoms Viewpoint, 3-6).

Besides these economic facts, the tenor of some of the methanol opponents has conjured sad chapters of history. Tacoma expelled Chinese people and destroyed their businesses in 1885. And the word “redlining” is a direct reminder of the systematic financial discrimination of people of color in days gone by. The group organizing opposition to the methanol manufacturing plant calls itself RedLine Tacoma – an unveiled message to be sure.

At public meetings earlier this year, some opponents called the project a “Chinese trap,” claimed it will make us a “Chinese industrial colony,” and declared “China is not our friend” because “they strive to poison our children with tainted formula” and “poison our kids with lead-based toys” and “they want to kill our dogs and pets with tainted treats.”

Pierce County is the most trade-dependent county in the most trade-dependent state in the U.S. Men and women across the county have jobs with a variety of foreign-owned firms. We are home to the Japanese firm Toray; growing aerospace jobs in Frederickson; the British firm GKN, which chose Sumner for its new facility; and the Australian firm Bradken, which owns and operates the Atlas Foundry in Tacoma, among many others.

Our openness and acceptance of businesses and people from around the world are a great strength. The EDB board of directors has gone on record supporting a timely, thorough, fact-based environmental review of the methanol plant proposal. In other words, let’s get some facts before making judgments.

With this pause, the community has a chance to rise to the occasion as we have so many times before. I believe that we will.

Bruce Kendall is president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.