Daffodils, fresh rhubarb pie, and a classic American Main Street. For people who grew up in the South Sound, those might be the images that first spring to mind when thinking of Sumner. But, as Carmen Palmer, the city’s communications director, best put it, Sumner is really “a tale of two cities.”
Over the years, Sumner has worked hard to meld a visionary future with its historic gems. It’s a balancing act that is no small feat but one the city has embraced.
Sumner has long been known as the “Rhubarb Pie Capital of the World,” and agriculture has played a vital role in the Pierce County city’s growth since its settlement more than 165 years ago as rhubarb — along with berries, flowers, and other agriculture — flourished in its fertile soil.
In fact, by 2007, approximately 27 percent of the nation’s rhubarb-growing farmland was found in and around Sumner, according to the city, with some farms now being run by fifth-generation farmers.
The 10,000-person city, which was settled in 1853 and incorporated in 1891, still exudes its small-town charm. That’s due, in part, to zoning and new development design standards.
“The goal has been to grow and change, but to keep that flavor, and sense of character, and community, and small town that Sumner is known for,” said Ryan Windish, Sumner’s community development director. “So, as we see new housing and new commercial development, we’re trying to reflect the same historical feel. … As growth and change have happened, we’ve tried to tailor the character of that development to feel like (historic) downtown.”
Today, the historic downtown is home to a host of businesses, such as antiques shops, the 1950s-style Main Street Dairy Freeze, and community events. Meanwhile, the East Main Street business district reveals a newer community where patrons can — for instance — grab a coffee at Starbucks or shop at Fred Meyer.
Less obvious, however, is that this quaint city also houses a strong industrial area. In fact, the city’s commercial and industrial districts support roughly 14,000 jobs.
“What you don’t see that would surprise a lot of people about Sumner, is around the mid-1960s, (the city) designated the north area for industrial and manufacturing. That has slowly developed over time, mostly in the last 10 to 15 years,” Palmer said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that this charming, cute small town is also the largest manufacturing employment center in Pierce County.”
Sumner’s industrial roots actually date back more than 100 years, with the opening, for example, of the Fleischmann’s Yeast plant (now closed), a cannery (known today as the Old Cannery Furniture Warehouse), and paper mills. Today, however, it reflects a more modern time.
Costco, REI, Helly Hansen, Amazon, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters are among the businesses that now operate warehousing, manufacturing, and distribution facilities in Sumner.
“Sumner has had some element of industry, more so maybe than Puyallup even, for a long time,” Windish said.
And the city’s commercial and industrial development shows few signs of slowing. For instance, a 122-room Candlewood Suites is expected to open later this fall, and construction is set to begin soon on a 122,000-square-foot addition to the existing Costco warehouse to facilitate online sales.
Additional projects underway include a multistory parking garage that will net about 550 parking spaces at Sumner’s Sounder train station, where there are more than 1,700 boardings each day. Sound Transit expects to open the garage in 2023.
Meanwhile, the city is considering zoning amendments that would target portions of East Sumner for an Innovation+Artisan District. The idea: to provide a hub for startups, entrepreneurs, artists, and other creatives to start and incubate new businesses that would complement Sumner’s manufacturing and industrial area. According to the city, the site, if approved, also would be available for performing arts, restaurants, and microbreweries.
Clearly, this “tale of two cities” is far from over. In fact, one could say a new chapter is just beginning.