By Walter Neary
In 2011, Lakewood endured one of the most bitter neighborhood debates in recent memory. Residents of the Tillicum area were deeply concerned about traffic changes announced by the leadership team at Camp Murray. Camp Murray is outside Lakewood boundaries, and it already had half the permits it needed for construction from Pierce County government. Lakewood was wresting with the rest of the requests of Camp Murray and its then commander, Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg.
Many Tillicum residents just naturally assumed our Lakewood council would defend them from Camp Murray at all costs, just as we had done our best to defend them and other parts of town from the railroad line proposals. Our council, armed with sharp lawyers, had to stare down the state government, the federal government, and a president running for re-election who was bragging about the project. I sort of assumed we would stand immovable for Tillicum too, which is why my blog was so rosy at the time. And yet, based on the nature of Lakewood itself, you could tell this was going to be one of the thorniest Lakewood neighborhood battles ever. When I met with Tillicum neighborhood leadership, I did not predict an outcome, but I do remember telling them to get a good lawyer.
Here’s the deal. Tillicum was never going to win that one, because of who they were up against. And it’s a lesson worth knowing if you want to be part of steering Lakewood away from such disputes again.
Of course, in almost every scenario you could have imagined, Tillicum would have won. It’s an unwritten rule that a city is going to put its own citizens first. Tillicum residents have earned the consideration not just for where they live, within city boundaries, but for years of organized effort to reclaim their community from crime.
If Camp Murray had been Microsoft, or Intel, or Western State Hospital, or the Gates Foundation, or the state Department of Parks, and they wanted something that would disrupt Tillicum, Tillicum would have won.
So why didn’t it? Please let me exaggerate in this post to make a point. Indulge me while we enter a slightly alternate universe.
Let’s suppose Camp Murray did not exist. Let’s suppose instead Lakewood’s neighbor was the Animal Shelter for Pandas, Penguins and Every Cute Animal Imaginable and Camp for Adorably Wide-Eyed War Orphans of Brotsylspotsnia.
So in this alternate universe, everyone growing up in Lakewood would grow up next to an organization that traffics in adorable animals and children. Daily, the media from around the world would come to do stories on the place. Viral videos of adorable frolicking penguins, cute pandas and wide-eyed children from war zones would be among the most highly watched in YouTube. Children of all ages would grow up thinking that it would be cool to visit Lakewood and come see the adorable animals and donate to the disadvantaged children. Hollywood celebrities would come to the camp routinely to help the place raise money. The place would be a meme factory.
Let’s suppose the guy who ran the place, a fella named Lowenberg, was embarrassed at how these Hollywood celebrities have to see some parts of Lakewood and particularly at the awkward entrance to the Animal Shelter for Pandas, Penguins and Every Cute Animal Imaginable and Camp for Adorably Wide-Eyed War Orphans of Brotsylspotsnia.
Lowenberg decides he wants a new gate.
Now, based on history, the city of Lakewood would look at the disruption caused by the gate and kindly tell him to deal with it. They would make alternate suggestions for improving the entry to his camp, and perhaps considering moving things a block or two. But Lowenberg would not take this lightly, and so he would lobby for Lakewood to give him what he wants. In my alternate reality, he would be able to summon the support of millions of people who support adorable penguins and pandas, and thus are slightly crazed with love of animals. He would be able to summon those who feel bad for the war
orphans, and these people would pack the emails and mailboxes and voice mails of the Lakewood City Council with sympathy for the camp. Hollywood celebrities would arrive at the Lakewood City Council meeting. They’d sing songs of support for the camp outside in the City Hall parking lot, and clog the public comments section of meetings begging for the evil, mean city council to help the Animal Shelter for Pandas, Penguins and Every Cute Animal Imaginable and Camp for Adorably Wide-Eyed Orphans of Brotsylspotsnia.
And the Lakewood City Council would stand firm for his citizens, because that’s what the council normally does. Your residents come first. Tillicum would have won.
But Tillicum was not up against any of those people, pandas or penguins.
Tillicum was up against the military.
The military cannot lose in Lakewood. Consider its role and its numbers in this community. Go into any store and look for young men with long hair. Good luck. You’ll see a couple. What I see instead are young men and women with short haircuts, often accompanied by a young spouse pushing a stroller.
For that matter, look around for men my age with long hair. Instead, I see men who have lost some or all of their hair after a lifetime of dedicated heroism to our nation.
Lakewood is packed to the bring with retirees who bring wisdom, honor and valor to our community.
The numbers bear this out. Camp Murray folks estimated in 2006 that their economic impact in the surrounding area was nearly half a billion dollars. Most of the available economic statistics are for JBLM, Camp Murray and Lakewood’s neighbor, which pumps more than $3 billion of payroll into the area. Overall, more than 670,000 veterans and 106,000 active duty military live in the state.
If the military says , “Hey Lakewood, disrupt your voters and other residents in Tillicum,” then Lakewood will.
Now, here’s the deal. You might think I’m teeing up to say I disagree. I’m not. I can’t say this is a bad thing. Consider the military. the men and women serving in our Armed Forces are willing to give their lives for you, for me, for people in other countries. I don’t know about you, but the bravest thing I am doing right now is driving a 1987 Toyota Corolla that does not have airbags. So for me to tell people in the military that they can’t have what they want is very ungrateful.
If the military announced that it is going to change traffic on my home, School Street, for the betterment of uniformed personnel and the nation’s security, then I better be prepared to suck it up.
If you return to Lakewood, consider that some of our elected officials, such as Mayor Doug Richardson, wanted to win election to other office. If the dispute was a political exercise, which it’s not, Doug could have chosen to side with the voters of Tillicum, all 90 of them, or the voters who represent current and retired military and/or work at JBLM and Camp Murray. Doug now represents, thankfully, our region on the Pierce County Council. Doug himself is a retired brigadier general, the caliber of man who could have commanded Camp Murray.
Now I know Doug Richardson. He is a man of great integrity. He has been a mentor to me. I was one of a couple people who helped make him the mayor after Bill Harrison. So I know Doug Richardson well, and he doesn’t count votes.
But there was absolutely no political downside to siding with the military over Tillicum.
In retrospect, it’s impressive that our City Council pushed back to Camp Murray as long as we did. As The News Tribune noted, Tillicum got a better deal than it would have had with the original plans for Lowenberg Gate.
I made a wisecrack about 90 voters in Tillicum. There are more. But not enough to counter the impacts of the military in this community, which run like blood through our collective veins. The voter numbers are not a slam at Tillicum. It’s true nationwide that people in lower-income areas vote less often than people in other demographics.
If Tillicum wants to be able to win political battles with the military, it’s going to need triple the number of registered and participating voters than it has now AND be able to prove it has an overriding interest in the nation’s security. Good luck.
It is rare, however, for the military bases to make demands that affect Lakewood residents so directly. That’s why in an earlier note, I called the Lowenberg Gate matter a fluke. It was a fluke that people associated with the military decided to use their power to impose will on Lakewood. But could it happen again? Sure.
Here’s an example, once again exaggerated for effect. The commanders of the base and its Stryker brigades ponder what they could do to improve morale of the troops. Someone has a great idea. Name the local communities after the base! That would show real support! So they go to the local City Councils. They ask Lakewood to rename itself JBLM-wood. They ask Puyallup to name itself Lewis-lup. They ask DuPont to rename itself McChord-Pont.
Councils would immediately divide into two camps. Some council members in those cities would immediately make a motion to change the name. A second camp would suggest forming committees with citizens to explore the implications of the change. Would the military win in all three cities? I don’t know enough about DuPont and Puyallup to say, but it will take mighty strength to announce to the world, “No, we are not going to give our heroes in the military what they want.”
You might think that renaming idea is silly and no way it could happen. Tillicum residents used to think along those lines too. See the picture above.
And yet …This might be the time to step back and say, why do Tillicum and the military have to be at odds? Wouldn’t it be better if they got along, and the military not propose disruptions to the community? Camp Murray’s leadership has changed, and the Lowenberg of the Lowenberg Memorial Gate no longer commands out there.
Hopefully the military will work collaboratively with the community instead of being at odds with the community. Yes, the military are our real world superheroes. But when neighbors of any kind battle, no one wins.
(( By the way, a final note to avoid confusion, the gate is not, as far as I know, yet named the Lowenberg Memorial Gate because a) he’s still alive and b) no one has gone through the formality of changing the name yet. I’m just trying to make a point by giving it the name early ))