The City of Lakewood, as it is known today, was once sacred land for the Steilacoom and Nisqually tribes. Often referred to in the early half of the 19th century as The Prairie, the area was distinguished by myriad small lakes and patches of Garry oak trees.
Then in 1833, the British established Fort Nisqually. This began a long history of the land being intrinsically tied to the military. Fort Nisqually was later sold to the United States. In 1849, the American military established nearby Fort Steilacoom — where many well-known Civil War generals like Ulysses S. Grant were based — to deter Native American attacks.
Camp Lewis, later known as Fort Lewis, was established in 1917, followed by McChord Field, later known as McChord Air Force Base, in 1938. In 2010, the two posts merged to become Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The present-day City of Lakewood is Pierce County’s second-largest city, with close to 60,000 residents. And since its incorporation in 1996, Lakewood pays close attention to the ebbs and flows of the base. After all, with an estimated 70 percent of active-duty and retired military living, shopping, and playing in Lakewood, the city’s economic prosperity very nearly depends on it.
“In the last few years, we have had a lot of restaurants, retailers, and professional services (move into the area), and a lot of it is driven by (JBLM),” said John Caulfield, Lakewood’s city manager.
To keep its economy competitive, the city invests heavily in strategic business relationships — one of them, unsurprisingly, being the base. In 2011, Lakewood and other South Sound cities established the South Sound Military & Communities Partnership to strengthen regional leadership between military and civilian communities.
Becky Newton, Lakewood’s economic development manager, said the city is attracting specialty healthcare services that cater specifically to military members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. For example, Cohen Veterans Network — based on the East Coast and specializing in mental health care for post-9/11 veterans and their families — will expand to Lakewood this fall.
Additionally, Lakewood also has established a strategic partnership with the Port of Tacoma, welcoming companies dislocated from the Port. Last year, Bear Wood Windows moved in along Pacific Highway South, occupying the former Tactical Tailor building, due to dwindling space in its former location.
As Lakewood reaches a projected population of 77,000 by 2040, as determined by the Puget Sound Regional Council, Newton predicts the City will continue to follow the economic trends, which currently include a boom in light industrial, warehousing, and distribution, and niche manufacturing serving the hot housing market.
Meanwhile, the city is designing a subarea “downtown” plan. Motor Avenue — a connecting route in the city’s central business district, rarely used by motorists and pedestrians, but boasting reminders of the area’s historic past — is at the heart of that plan. Motor Avenue will be transformed into a “festival street,” complete with a civic plaza, park, high-density housing, and destination retail, all meant to spur future redevelopment. Motor Avenue will be part of a much larger subarea plan that includes Lakewood Towne Center, situated southeast of Motor Avenue, and business nodes up and down Bridgeport Way.
Motor Avenue is home to the Colonial Center, which opened in 1937, then known as the Lakewood Shopping Center, rumored as one of the first suburban shopping centers in the United States. It featured the Lakewood Theatre and the Lakewood Terrace Restaurant, a favorite hangout for locals. Today, the theatre and the restaurant are vacant. There have been discussions to revitalize the spaces, though no firm plans have been made.
Lakewood’s largest job producers are government, military, and higher education. Joint Base Lewis-McChord (located in unincorporated Pierce County), Madigan Hospital, and Camp Murray (headquarters for the Washington National Guard) employ 55,000, 5,100, and 980, respectively. Other public sector employers include Clover Park School District, Western State Hospital, Pierce College, and Pierce Transit.
Healthcare and retail also rank among top employers. Aacres Washington LLC, providing services to individuals with disabilities, employs 600; St. Clare Hospital employs 590; Greater Lakes Mental Health employs 340; and Walmart Supercenter and Target employ 365 and 220, respectively.
Caulfield said over its 22-year history, the city has evolved from a retail hub to something more diversified — attracting more professional services, healthcare, engineering, industrial, and manufacturing job sectors. With conceptual plans in progress to change Madigan Army Medical Center to a Trauma 1 facility, Caulfield expects more investment in the city either directly or indirectly as a result of the military’s actions.
Meanwhile, other areas primed for growth are the Woodbrook Business Park and Tillicum. The Woodbrook Business Park, a 467,000-square-foot warehouse, will welcome two new supply chain logistics companies this fall. Tillicum, a neighborhood on Lakewood’s southern reach, has received $30 million in public investment over the past two decades. A connecting road from the Thorne Lane exit to Gravelly Lake Drive is in the design phase by the Washington State Department of Transportation, and when complete will open Tillicum up to renewed investment.