Two days after American Smelting and Refining Co. announced it planned to close its 1890s-era copper smelter on the far end of Ruston Way, my editor sent me out to interview the workers as they came off their Friday shift. It was June 1984.
Many of the soot-covered and weary-looking smeltermen, roasters, and pipefitters carried their boxy plastic and metal lunch pails up the steep curve of North 51st Street toward their homes in Ruston. They didn’t talk to each other and didn’t look much like they wanted to talk to a cub reporter — though a few of them did.
Meanwhile, 40 miles south, Mike Cohen’s emerging construction company just started work adding two new screens to the Lacey Cinemas and built up a Lacey housing community featuring cozy, 848-square-foot homes.
Back then, neither Asarco nor MC Construction had heard of each other.
Eventually — as June marks the 35th anniversary of Asarco’s closure announcement — the two companies became so inextricably and improbably linked that they eventually spawned what we love today as Point Ruston — the panoramic village near Point Defiance Park.
How did it happen?
“It’s a long story, but I’ll give you the medium-length version,” Cohen said on a recent morning over coffee at the Jewel Box Cafe as he gazed out the window at construction on the future 195-room, four-star Silver Cloud Hotel and Puget Sound beyond.
Cohen had become a pioneer in condominium and apartment developments in the early 2000s, when the City of Tacoma began offering 10-year tax credits in hopes it would spark more housing projects. After some success, city economic developers sold Cohen on a deal for a groundbreaking condominium project on the east side of the Thea Foss Waterway. But Port of Tacoma interests successfully blocked it for fear people living so close to their noisy, smelly industrial operations could eventually drive industry out. So the City of Tacoma bought out Cohen’s interest.
Flush with cash and no immediate big projects, Cohen heard that Asarco planned to issue a request for proposals to find a developer willing to navigate a cleanup of the polluted smelter site and tackle redeveloping it — into something new.
“I think I was like a lot of the developers who came to look at it,” Cohen said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’d just like one little piece of that property, but there’s no way I wanted to take on the whole thing, have to tear all the buildings down and then clean that mess up.’”
Yet Cohen and his still-smallish construction company decided to do battle with some big national developers to win the right to do just that.
Why, Mike, why?
“I mean, the big beautiful views. People say, ‘Where did you get this vision?’ I point to the water and say, ‘You can’t see that?!’”
But back then, Cohen — always a bundle of optimism — had more obstacles than fans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided on bold oversight of the complex cleanup of arsenic-laden soils. The Town of Ruston threw out threats, permit delays, and other land mines. The Great Recession stole time and capital. Looky-loos would drive by and wonder who in their right mind would drive way out there for food, drinks, shopping, and movies.
“A lot of naysayers,” Cohen said. He remembered, though, that this columnist was one of the few believers, writing often about the journey and the certain glory to come.
Point Ruston has become a jewel of the Northwest. The next big thing just underway? The public market modeled after the best-in-class unique vendors — butcher, seafood, produce, baker, cheese, wine, other food products — and a full-on grocer modeled after Vancouver’s Granville Island.
So, Mike, I believed Point Ruston would work, but it has exceeded my expectations. How about you?
“One of the things we always say in this business is you don’t usually have time for too much reflection and appreciation because everything takes so long just for one building. All the steps you go through then, by the time one is done, you’re already into other things.”
“You know what worries me?” Cohen asked. “We don’t want people to get bored. We keep looking for ways to change it up around here so people will want to keep coming back.”