Council discusses community summit plans

When Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma thinks of the city’s achievements of the past 15 years — the growth of University of Washington Tacoma, renovation of Union Station, a strategy for economic development, the creation of neighborhood councils — he points to a community summit held at the University of Puget Sound in the fall of 1990.

During that meeting, residents, business leaders, and community stakeholders convened to create a strategic plan for the city.

“In my view, it was an extraordinarily successful enterprise,” said Baarsma, during yesterday’s City Council study session, a meeting designed to gauge interests of councilmembers for hosting another summit this year. With a new city manager hired last summer, and issues such as a moratorium on group housing and a proposed plan to charge fees for emergency services, the mayor believes a community summit is necessary.

“The timing could not be better,” he added.

The idea of a community summit has been discussed at City Hall for several months. Baarsma mentioned it during a council study session Nov. 29. And the city’s Neighborhoods and Housing Committee endorsed the plan Dec. 5, when it made a unanimous motion to forward the idea to the full City Council for further discussion.

During yesterday’s study session, former mayor Karen Vialle recalled the first community summit, which was held while she was mayor. At the time, residents and city leaders initially met to address concerns surrounding violent crime, illegal drug activity, derelict properties, and abandoned vehicles. Through polls, surveys, and group discussion during the summit, participants identified key issues and built a strategic plan centered around economic development, the environment, public safety, diversity, and more.

“One of the defining moments of this city moving forward was the community summit,” said Vialle. “The summit created a great sense of community and vision for where we wanted to go. It also got rid of a lot of Tacoma’s naysayers. I’m here today to say, ‘Do it.’”

Vialle told the council that a key to the summit’s success was its grassroots neighborhood support. Residents and business leaders from across the city led the charge, according to Vialle. “The steering committee included everyone from George Weyerhauser to a welfare mom living in Salishan,” said Vialle.

Though councilmembers generally supported the idea, questions remained as to how the summit would be created.

Councilmember Julie Anderson wondered if the city should create a new strategic vision in advance of the summit, or if the community should come up with that vision at the summit. “A future community summit could be designed and implemented in so many different ways,” she said.

She also hoped that a summit would provide an opportunity to cultivate new leadership. “There are a lot of new, young professionals having trouble assuming leadership roles in the city,” she said.

Newly elected Councilmember Jake Fey also supported the idea. While he campaigned this year, he said, many residents told him they had “no sense of where we’re headed” as a city. He thought a community summit would address that concern.

Councilmember Mike Lonergan hoped a summit would address issues such as education and poverty in the city. He was concerned that, in many instances, Tacoma has higher poverty rates than neighboring cities. “How do we make sure there’s a future here, and we’re not at the bottom of lists in education and poverty,” he said.

The city’s community summit might fit in with a similar plan spearheaded by the Joint Municipal Action Committee. That group, which includes representatives from the county, city, Metro Parks, and Tacoma schools will meet Jan. 31 to brainstorm a community meeting that would focus on children, families, and the environment.

The City Council is expected to continue its discussion on a community summit in the next few months.