Laureen Lund (’82 Comm.) recently celebrated her fifth anniversary as the person who sells Gig Harbor to the world. She seems to do her job well. At least, that’s why I’m sitting in her office in Gig Harbor’s city building in mid-August.
“The best use of our dollars is public relations,” she tells me, without a trace of irony or triumph. “If I can get somebody to do an article, it costs me nothing.”
I let that sink in for a minute. So-do I feel exploited?
Nah, not a bit. I’m having a fine time.
As for Lund, she just seems very pleased that she’s initiated another person into the pleasures of Gig Harbor.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort on her part to convince me that this is a dandy little town. After the long drive across the state and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, I had gravitated instinctively to the Tides tavern for lunch. That’s perfect, says Lund. So was the deep-fried halibut.
A great number of people have discovered Gig Harbor since members of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, rowed into the harbor in longboats and a captain’s gig, seeking shelter from a storm in 1841. But I still feel that little thrill of discovery as I walk down Harborview later in the afternoon to pine over small boats for sale. When I head back downtown, I notice for the first time this enormous presence looming across Puget Sound.
“We claim it,” says Lund, referring to the image of the mountain on the city’s logo. “We never refer to it as ‘Rainier.’ Just ‘the mountain.'”
Twenty-three years after the brief visit by the Wilkes Expedition, Samuel Jerisich arrived as the first European settler. More specifically, the first of many Croats. Even today, the town is divided among the “-ich’s” and the “non-ich’s,” and many of the street signs end in ‘-ich.'”
Many of the settlers who followed Jerisich took up fishing, establishing the town’s main identity for a hundred years. Although pleasure boats now outnumber fishing boats, especially in August, when many of the bigger fishing boats are in Alaska, fishing still defines the town. Even though that’s changing, no one, least of all Lund, wants to change it any faster.
“Part of our strategic plan is to retain our maritime heritage and not become anything Disneyland-ish,” she says.
Even though downtown merchants have long tried to attract visitors, tourism became an official strategy for the town only five years ago, when Lund was hired full-time. What made her salary and mission possible was the building of a handful of hotels, such as the Wesley Inn, where I am staying-and which is quite nice. Every lodging establishment in Washington with more than 15 rooms collects a lodging tax, from which Lund’s funding, and that of other marketing directors, is drawn.
“Early on, there was some resistance,” she says. Some feared becoming a Leavenworth, a small town that, in order to draw tourists, adopted a foreign persona.
So far, though it has the ubiquitous tourist art galleries and gift shops, Gig Harbor seems to have avoided the grossest forms of tourist quaintness. People who work at occupations other than waitress and t-shirt peddler are still quite visible in Gig Harbor.
So how exactly does one go about selling a community to the world?
Step number one is understanding how to target people who would be interested in this community, says Lund.
This is not really a family destination, she says. Rather, it’s more appealing to business travelers, couples, and retirees. Having determined the visitor demographics, she can target the town’s appeal.
“Everything I do is driven by our strategic plan,” she says. One of the goals laid out in the plan is to increase overnight stays by 35 percent by 2008. “Last year, we increased by 11 percent.”
One thing that could help boost that rate is the opening of what Lund refers to as “Bridge Number 3.” The effect of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1942 was short-lived, as “Galloping Gertie” fell famously into the Sound after only a few months of channeling people to the Kitsap Peninsula. But Bridge Number 2, which opened seven years later, permanently connected Gig Harbor to the mainland.
Now the people of Gig Harbor anticipate the effect of Bridge Number 3, which opens in 2007, with decidedly mixed feelings, which stem from the understanding that doubling the capacity of the existing bridge will lure more people.
As we talk, Mike Davis ’78, the town’s new police chief, joins us. He contemplates the additional traffic across the bridge that will transport undesirables. Currently, the major crime in Gig Harbor is identity theft. Will that increase with the opening of Bridge Number 3? We’ll see, says Davis.
Bridge or no bridge, the area is changing. Costco is planning a new store, as are a number of other businesses.
One welcome addition is a new hospital that will serve Gig Harbor and Port Orchard. Interestingly, says Lund, the hospital will have no maternity ward. Research showed that people who live in Gig Harbor are generally beyond child-bearing age.
What this means to Lund is that younger families simply cannot afford to live here. Median household income in Gig Harbor is $54,935, compared to $45,776 for the state. Median age for Gig Harbor is 37, compared to 35.3 for the state.
“We want to be a community that’s diverse enough that there’s housing for everybody,” she says. “We want to be a community. But that’s a hard thing.
“We’re not very ethnically diverse either,” she adds. “We’re pretty darn white.”
So maybe we can’t all afford to live in Gig Harbor. But we can still visit, right?
Let’s say, I propose to Lund, that I return next weekend with my wife. What would we do?
“Well, you’d go to the Tides for lunch,” she says. And then dinner at the Beach House. Or at the new Brix 25. (Not wanting to get back in the car, I find a new Italian restaurant, Terracciano. Magnifico!)
On the first Saturday of each month is the Art Walk, a tour of the galleries. But you can do that on your own, she says.
Be sure to take a guided kayak tour, she continues. The family that runs the kayak center is very knowledgeable of the ecosystem of Puget Sound.
After shopping and hitting all the galleries, get out of town, she says. Explore the outlying areas. Take a picnic to Key Peninsula. Go to the most beautiful state park in Washington, Penrose Point, 15 minutes from town.
And definitely visit the excellent historical museum.
“Also,” she concludes, “this is a good place to do nothing.”
Have a beer, she suggests. Read a book. Watch the boats go by.