Gig Harbor’s main economic engine is rendered obvious as soon as you meander off Highway 16 into the picturesque historic waterfront downtown along Harborview Drive.
The town’s most-prized commodity is its breathtaking view — on a clear day, tourists walking Harborview Drive to enjoy food, drink, and shopping are afforded a front-row seat to the harbor, Mount Rainier, and the Cascades. Visitors often travel by boat, mooring at the city-owned Jerisich Dock, and will stay for the day, or overnight, at one of a handful of inns or any one of the dozens of VRBOs, Airbnbs, or bed and breakfasts.
Tourism, needless to say, is a significant economic driver for Gig Harbor, which is supported by retail, restaurants, craft breweries and taprooms, and recreational and water activities. For example, several companies offer boating tours of the Puget Sound. Gig Harbor also is host to John “Cinque” Synco, who offers a one-of-a-kind Venetian Gondola experience.
Much of Gig Harbor’s tourism appeal is tied to its fishing heritage. There are upwards of 20 career fishermen who call Gig Harbor home. Following the Blessing of the Fleet on the first weekend of June during the annual Maritime Gig Festival, the fishermen travel by boat to Alaska to fish for commercial distributors, before returning in the fall.
The area now known as Gig Harbor was discovered in 1841 by the American Wilkes Expedition, when a member of the fleet came into the harbor in a longboat called a “captain’s gig.” Twenty years later, several men sailing from British Columbia settled there. One of the settlers was Samuel Jerisich. He and his wife Anna are considered two of Gig Harbor’s founders. For the rest of the 19th century and early 20th century, settlers arrived, traveling from as far as Norway, Sweden, and Croatia.
In 1905, to support the area’s flourishing fishing industry, resident Peter Skansie built the first gas-powered-engine fishing vessel. The city celebrates the Skansie family and its boat-building heritage with Skansie Brothers Park on the waterfront, adjacent to Jerisich Dock, where the historic Skansie House is open to tours and brings in roughly 10,000 visitors a year. Skansie Brothers Park also hosts the Waterfront Farmers Market, presented by the Gig Harbor Downtown Alliance, from June through August; it attracts upwards of 1,900 weekly visitors.
Gig Harbor was incorporated in 1946. Today, the population is nearing 10,000, but the city center, and all its amenities, restaurants, and retail serve approximately 55,000 residents, including those living in the outlying areas of Fox Island, Artondale, Rosedale, Cromwell, Wollochet, and Crescent Valley.
“We have a lot of retail, and we have a lot of professional services,” said Mayor Kit Kuhn, who began his first term in January. “We are 80 percent busier in the daytime, (because) we’re surrounded by 55,000 people that call Gig Harbor home that shop and visit and do their appointments in Gig Harbor.”
One employer dominates the city’s workforce. Peninsula School District averages 1,200 regular staff year-round, not including substitutes, making it easily the No. 1 employer. CHI Franciscan’s St. Anthony’s Hospital employs 654. MultiCare also has a presence, employing 164. Costco is one of the larger retail employers, supplying jobs to 272.
Of major concern to longtime residents are the unprecedented population growth and potential impact to Gig Harbor’s character and quaint way of life. Kuhn and other new council members were elected in part because of their vows to encourage smart development. A six-month moratorium approved in February prohibited new residential permits. Kuhn said the city has a backlog of 1,271 dwellings approved 10 years ago still to be built.
Where Gig Harbor is realizing skyrocketing growth is Harbor Hill in Gig Harbor North, an area the city annexed in 1997. Harbor Hill is a master-planned community developed by Olympic Property Group. Project approvals for the 546 lots spanning 14 phases were established prior to 2008. When Olympic started building lots and selling to builders in 2014, the speed was faster than some anticipated. John Chadwell, vice president of land development, said an anticipated 10- to 15-year supply soon became a five-year sellout.
Today, more than 300 homes there are occupied. Olympic is building the 14th and final phase of lots that will be sold to builders. Harbor Hill also includes a luxury retirement community, a Costco, other professional services and shopping, as well as the soon-to-be-opened 49,000-square-foot Town & Country Market. Retirees and young families are moving in, as are many who are choosing to start home-based businesses. Others are commuting to Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue.
Kuhn said an economic priority of his is to attract more family-wage jobs.
“I want that so people don’t have to drive away from our city to be employed,” he said.