On the Waterfront
by Carolyn Shea
Commissioner Connie Bacon MPA ’88 is working toward a sustainable future for the Port of Tacoma.
Visible from Interstate 5, the Port of Tacoma's container cranes loom over Commencement Bay like giant robotic workhorses. Cargo vessels many stories high glide slowly to and from the shipping terminals, where stacks of consumer goods arrive from Asia to be dispatched across the United States, and grain, wood products and other exports are loaded for transport around the globe.
Over the past couple of decades, this bustling terminus has become one of North America's largest seaports and the Pacific Northwest call for several major carriers. Last year, it handled more than 20 million tons of goods valued at nearly $39 billion. Its activities support about 113,000 jobs in Washington-43,000 in Pierce County alone-and annually generate $637 million in wages and $90 million in state and local tax revenue, making it a leading economic engine for the Puget Sound area.
Established in 1918 and publicly owned, Tacoma's seaport is governed by a five-member commission, which sets policy and authorizes major expenditures. Connie Bacon MPA '88 is a veteran commissioner, who was first elected by Pierce County voters in 1997. An advocate for seeking new ways to attract business opportunities to the seaport, Bacon also tries to anticipate which way the trade winds are going. Four years ago, she presciently advised the industry—which was expanding to meet surging demand-to plan for life beyond the Asia trade boom because the growth would someday inevitably end.
Now, with shipping traffic slowing all over the world, she says the "new economy" calls for the port to "look at other opportunities beyond the maritime business as new revenue streams, so we can spread risk." She envisions the port acting as a regional catalyst for the green jobs movement, perhaps by developing its property near Tacoma's Center for Urban Waters on the Thea Foss Waterway. Slated to open next year, this environmental research center will be dedicated to finding solutions to the problems facing urban marine ecosystems. After it opens, Bacon says the port could conceivably "attract incubator companies that blend well with the research being done there."
From 1992 to 1997, Bacon was executive director of the World Trade Center Tacoma, a nonprofit association focused on promoting international trade and providing trade support services to small and medium-sized businesses in the state. During her tenure, she traveled to China on several trade missions and witnessed the country's changing landscape. In 1994, she spearheaded a sister-city bond between Tacoma and Fuzhou, China, the capital of Fujian Province and a port city with a population of six million. Last year, the Port of Tacoma launched a pilot project with Fuzhou to forge regional trade ties. "The sister-city relationship has been primarily cultural," says Bacon. "This added an economic dimension." The first business to benefit from the project was a University Place-based vintner, which broke into the Chinese market after a visit by a Fuzhou delegation.
Bacon grew up in New York's Hudson Valley and earned her B.A. from Syracuse University, where she double-majored in economics and journalism. A resident of Lakewood, Wash., Bacon entered Evergreen's MPA program when she was 55, after deciding she wanted to do more policy-oriented work. "It was a terrific experience," she says. "Evergreen is a very forward-looking school. I learned to write again and think more widely and that has served me well ever since."
Bacon sits on the boards of several organizations, including the Asia Pacific Cultural Center. In 2006, she was appointed to the Washington State Economic Development Commission, which advises Governor Christine Gregoire on economic development issues. She is also a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum, a national group devoted to bringing together leaders from across the country to develop their skills and foster collaboration between them for the public good. Fellows spend a year in intense training, which includes a summer wilderness retreat. In 2007, at age 75, she climbed Mount Adams with her chapter. "It took 13 hours," she says. "I was the oldest and the slowest, so they put me in the front."
The hurdles ahead for Bacon include guiding the port through the current economic climate and into a sustainable future. "There's a lot of work to be done," she says. "And it has to be done with some serious judgment."