Manufacturing Industrial Council Director Meredith Neal at Tool Gauge in Tacoma

Tool Gauge employees manufacture and assemble metal and plastic parts for the aerospace industry.

The Tacoma Tideflats have been a South Sound manufacturing powerhouse for nearly a century. What started in 1921 with the arrival of a single commercial steamship onboarding lumber en route to Japan has since grown from 240 acres to more than 2,700, with waterways, rail lines, and highway corridors supporting more than 29,000 Port of Tacoma-related jobs and generating nearly $3 billion in economic activity.

More broadly, in Pierce County as a whole, the manufacturing industry supports more than 17,000 jobs, offering average annual wages that range from approximately $61,400 to nearly $96,000, according to recent data.

With such an active industry, it makes sense the Manufacturing Industrial Council for the South Sound — a coalition of manufacturing, industrial, and maritime business partners that aims to promote and enhance a positive climate for their respective industries — was launched in September.

Under the leadership of its director, Meredith Neal, the council — a program of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber modeled after the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle — aims to be the voice of the South Sound manufacturing industry and advocate for a range of issues, such as the creation of family-wage jobs, the support of programs that foster job training and education, efforts to protect the local environment, and a taxation system that spurs capital investment and research and development activities.

Two years ago, Neal ran for a seat on the Tacoma City Council. Although she wasn’t elected, Neal was surprised to find herself identified as the business advocate in a crowded race of candidates.

“My main campaign push was for Tacoma to have a variety of living-wage jobs that can support our community and families,” said Neal, a Proctor resident and mother of two, who earned a degree in Urban Planning and Community Development from The Evergreen State College in Tacoma, and went on to work as an environmental planner, real estate agent, and a project manager at MRF Construction in Tacoma. She also served on Tacoma’s Planning Commission. “Tacoma has so much opportunity for jobs, especially in the industrial, manufacturing fields from the Port of Tacoma to the WestRock paper mill.”

“The (council) is an absolutely essential organization at the right time, giving a collective voice to our vibrant manufacturing base, which is responsible for tens of thousands of great jobs for South Sound families,” said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

According to Neal, the council helps Tideflats business owners and employees in two key ways.

“We are able to provide advocacy for businesses and help them advocate for themselves when it comes to zoning and other issues,” Neal said. “Secondly, we are the voice of the community, and are able to help people understand the variety of businesses in the Tideflats, and the value they bring to the community.

“I find it really fascinating to have that variety and mix of locally owned and family-owned businesses,” she added. “I love being able to tell their story with the community and helping people understand the value it brings to the area.”

“Our member companies that operate in the Tideflats depend upon the port and other elected officials to make decisions that continue to improve transportation, land use, and environmental policies,” added Jordan Royer, vice president for external affairs at the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “The (council) helps us make sure that those decisions are made with the latest, most up-to-date information as well as input from the people on the ground who have the expertise.”

Photo by Jeff Hobson

Currently, Neal is meeting with instructors at Tacoma-area colleges, touring these schools’ manufacturing and vocational training programs, and sharing insights and resources related to local businesses and job-placement opportunities.

She has noticed a huge interest in the aerospace industry among students, which “makes sense, since there are Boeing facilities in the area,” Neal said. “Frederickson has a plant, too. But I try to open their eyes to some options in the Tacoma area that could use students like them.” 

Neal and the council do more than just share knowledge and stories about South Sound businesses. Recently, Sound Transit met to discuss proposed locations for LINK light rail stations. Some truckers were concerned about how these locations might impact freight mobility along Interstate 5 entrance and exit ramps. The Council heard those concerns and stood by as a supportive voice.

Such instances can help businesses promote their causes, which often leads to a greater understanding of the business community’s needs and support. 

“The South Sound is the place for jobs, and when united together as a community, we can work to bring positive impact, jobs, and living wages to the area,” Neal said.