To Stan Selden, there's no doubt that a new seaplane float will attract operators who now lack any safe and easy place to tie up on the Tacoma waterfront.
Selden, a furniture store owner and president of the Tacoma Waterfront Association, says a first-class waterfront city needs a place where passengers can board seaplanes. He and the association have made it a crusade to get one built on Tacoma’s waterfront.
A score of cities in Washington, including such smaller locales as Bellingham, Olympia and Renton – and a handful of island communities in the San Juans – have proper facilities for host seaplanes.
Tacoma does not.
The one designated seaplane base in Pierce County is on American Lake, south of Tacoma, but that base is far from business and population centers.
“We need a facility where seaplanes can tie up,” Selden said Wednesday. “It will bring new life to our waterfront.”
Tacoma once had a float that could be used for seaplane tie-ups on the Thea Foss Waterway near Johnny’s Seafood, but that facility is no longer viable.
Selden said a Foss Waterway location makes sense both for tourists and for seaplane operators. A well-located dock, he said, would meet the technical requirements for seaplane use and would be within easy walking distance of such Tacoma attractions as the Museum of Glass, the Washington History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, the Tacoma Dome and the upcoming Lemay Automobile Museum.
Building a seaplane facility isn’t a huge project. Any bit of sheltered water can be the runway, but not just any boat dock can serve as seaplane tie-up.
Eric Johnson, construction project manager for the state Department of Transportation’s aviation division, said seaplane floats have special requirements.
A seaplane’s wings keep it from approaching docks tied to pilings that protrude from the water. And the dock’s sides must be specially designed to keep them from damaging the planes’ large floats.
Tim Brooks, vice president of operations for Kenmore Air, one of the country’s largest commercial seaplane airlines, said he believes there is demand for Tacoma flights – not on a Seattle or Victoria scale, but a demand nonetheless.
The airline has operated some charter flights from Tacoma in the past, but the means of transferring passengers from land to the plane have been makeshift, he said. In many cases, the airline has used boats to transfer passengers from land to plane and back.
“Those just aren’t satisfactory,” he said.
Brooks said he thinks a Foss Waterway location would fit seaplane needs both for commercial operators and for private seaplane pilots with their own aircraft.
A float site south of the Murray Morgan Bridge on the waterway would be closer to Tacoma attractions but would involve more taxiing for the seaplane pilots to a less-congested area to take off.
Selden has suggested a site nearer the mouth of the waterway, near the Dock Building.
The waterway association is working with the Thea Foss Waterway Development Authority to get the project moving.
Su Dowie, acting authority director, said she’s researching the possibilities of winning grants to finance a seaplane float construction project. Some grants are potentially available through the state Department of Transportation.
“This project is definitely on our radar screen,” she said.
Selden said he thinks a volunteer work crew could create a suitable facility in a few days at a low cost.
But Dowie said building any kind of new structure on the water can be complicated. The structure would need city shoreline permits and would have to pass muster with the Army Corps of Engineers and a handful of other agencies.
The mouth of the waterway can expose floating structures there to rough wave action, she said, so the structure would have to be properly engineered to withstand the pounding from wind-driven waves.
And siting and building any facility such as a seaplane float will necessarily involve public hearings to take residents’ views about the idea.
Some residents along the Foss might find the noise objectionable.
Not developer Grace Pleasants, who rebuilt the old Albers Mill at the south end of the waterway for residential use.
Pleasants, who comes from Alaska, has her seaplane pilot’s license.
“Noise? It will be nothing compared with the train tracks in our backyard,” she said.
Selden said the association thinks the float should be installed as soon as possible.
“We’d like to see one on the Foss, at the Old Town Dock, in Gig Harbor and even at Chambers Bay before the U.S. Open,” he said. “It’s a necessity for a lively waterfront.”