Thursday, January 17, 2008

Coummunity Transformation

MBA Culminating Project, March 2005
by Karen Pickett

Shirley Bennett watched in dismay as the crowd jeered and shouted at the departing councilman. The small town of Ruston was embroiled in controversy and the last few community meetings had turned ugly. The threat of personal lawsuits had just caused one of the elected officials to resign, to the seeming delight of the angry crowd. Despite her own opinion on the current conflict, Shirley was more concerned about how her neighbors were treating each other. She had seen many heated debates over in her 20 years in town, but none as confrontational as this one. “Does change have to be this difficult?” she wondered. She worried about the future, too. Consensus on where the town was headed seemed impossible.

Her tiny community had seen tremendous upheaval in the last two decades. The 5-square-block municipality housed 725 residents in 200 structures and sat on a peninsula with spectacular water views, next to the largest municipal park in the state. (Exhibit 1) In many ways, this community served as a microcosm of the cultural shift from a blue collar, frontier town to a white collar, upscale community; a shift that many larger cities had experienced; all happening in less than 20 years for the small town. As the former company town for a copper smelter, Ruston had been devastated by the closure of the plant in 1985. By 1990, the federal government had declared the entire town a Superfund clean up site because of arsenic and lead contamination in local yards, caused by smelter emissions. The town not only had to face the loss of its main tax base and primary employer, but the pollution debate impacted Ruston’s image and internal culture.

The current controversy began when the town decided to sell a piece of property for a 6-story condominium building. Developers had approached elected leaders after discovering the view property adjacent to a former elementary school that was owned by the town. The tiny municipality was on the verge of bankruptcy, and offer was seen by many as the chance to save the small town.

The controversy had been building for over a year. In 2003, the council had commissioned an appraisal on the school property. The $1.2 million value was based on tearing down the 1920 building that took up most of the block, and building single family homes in the residential neighborhood. The council then asked for bids and development scenarios from a variety of developers rather than accept an unsolicited offer from the newly formed Ruston Landing Group. Only two viable bids were received, each with different development concepts that paid about the appraised value for the property. One would extend the school building north and south into the parking lots, converting the new, larger building into market-rate apartments. The second proposal would turn the school building into office space, but take advantage of current zoning flexibility to build a 6 story condominium building on 10 - 25’ lots in front of the school. Leaders preferred the condominium offer and negotiated with Ruston Landing Group. The negotiations resulted in a complicated deal that ultimately paid the town $4.25 million. (Exhibit 2)

Ruston was not alone in its struggle to maintain its financial or social quality of life. Across many communities, shifting societal priorities had eroded the connections and sense of kinship that many neighborhoods had enjoyed in the past. Now, neighbors rush past each other, facing longer drives to work and are distracted by greater recreational choices that keep them away from home. When they are home, there are more indoor activities with television or the computer that inhibit the traditional conversations over backyard fences. All these contribute to a growing sense of isolation and loss of community. Although not unique in this challenge, with its confined locality and dramatic change events, Ruston serves as a magnifying glass for much larger societal changes.

Town Structure

The Town of Ruston is a 4th Class town as defined by the State of Washington. As such, the municipal structure is a strong mayor form of government. The mayor has exclusive power to hire and fire town employees, administer the town’s business and serves as the executive branch. The staff at town hall consists of a Clerk-Treasurer, a part-time utility clerk, a part-time court clerk and two full-time maintenance personnel. The clerk handles all town business while the utility and court clerks collect payments and administer those departments. The clerk positions were currently filled by folks who had been with the town less than 5 years. On the other hand, the maintenance men both lived in town and had worked for the town for decades. Ruston is served by a volunteer fire department whose chief has run the corner grocery store for over 20 years. The police chief has been in the role about three years, with one full-time and several part-time officers. The current mayor had been police chief for 10 years before taking a new job and being elected mayor three years ago.

The 5-member town council provides financial oversight, sets the annual budget and serves as the legislative branch. They approve contracts and monitor the finances of the town. The senior council member had held that position for over 40 years and another had served off and on for about as long. Another council member had served for about 12 years and the final two members were in their first term of office. Three council seats and the mayor were up for re-election that coming fall. All of Ruston’s elected positions are essentially volunteer, paying less than $50 per month.

Shirley and her husband were friends with the current mayor and had moved into the Ruston area in 1985. She had served as a council member from 1987 until 1992, just after the smelter shut down. She had remained active and was the current chair of Ruston’s Development Committee. As part of her undergraduate studies, she had written several papers documenting the history of the town. That history was changing right before her eyes, and Shirley reflected about the important milestones for the tiny town.


Ruston officially incorporated in 1906 as part of the explosion of urban development on Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. Ruston’s legacy is that of the Industrial Revolution, when man took pride in taming the earth. It was that force that laid the seed for Ruston when Tacoma business leaders built a smelter in 1880, first to process lead. When the facility was sold to operations manager WR Rust, he converted to a copper operation. He sold the growing business to the Guggenheim brothers, who incorporated it into their American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco). The area outside the smelter gate was home to most of the rough and tumble men who worked the grimy mill. The area was known as Smelterville, and when Tacoma threatened to annex it in 1890, the first thought of incorporating was born. (Ledger, 1890) As Tacoma continued to grow west along Commencement Bay, Rust had his smelter lawyers draw up petition papers and the subsequent incorporation election was a resounding success. (Ledger, 1906)

By 1910, it was clear the industrial boom was is full swing. Many homes had extended families living together and six addresses listed more than 10 borders in that year’s census, mostly immigrants from the same origin. There were at least two major hotels at the smelter gates with year-round guests. Early photos showed houses in the midst of smelter buildings, with single-family homes gradually growing predominant up the hillside from industrial operations.

Ruston was always fiercely loyal to Asarco. Most residents worked at the smelter and walked to work. The streets were “black with men” when the whistle blew at shift change. (The News Tribune, 1984) The town had their own school to serve local children through 8th grade, with a reputation for tough kids that excelled in area football and basketball championships. (Tallman, 1998) The first school burned down, along with the rest of the adjacent businesses in 1917. (Ruston Market Menu, 1998) In its place, a brick building was constructed in 1920 as the only structure on the block. The building was heated with steam from smelter operations, and the windows, along with those in the rest of the town, looked out over the roof of the smelter operations down the hill.

The first election reflected the lingering sense of a frontier town, where the strongest connections were to each other and to the company that provided for them. There were 122 voters; 51 of foreign birth and only one voter native to Washington State. (Voter Books 1 & 2, Town of Ruston) All the voters worked at the smelter or with supporting businesses. The town was able to collect substantial taxes from smelter operations so that garbage service was free. Asarco paid to pave all the alleys in town. By World War II, civic leaders across Tacoma boasted that 12% of world’s copper was produced locally, an important contribution to the war effort. (The Times, 1945) Asarco was the largest county employer for many years, with over 1,300 employees. (Tacoma Historical Society, 1996, quoted in 1997 Ruston Community Assessment)

Most of Ruston’s elected officials worked at the smelter as well. Owen Gallagher had been mayor for over 30 years, and was Asarco’s Safety Manager. He often led the town in support of Asarco in disputes with the outside world, writing letters to the editors of local papers and arguing with regulators. Public complaints, however, were rare before the advent of environmentalism in the 1960s. The cultural revolution of this decade spawned a movement in popular culture to return to the pristine conditions of nature, to reject the industrial age and the corporations that ran it. As this new generation fought against what they perceived to be the evils of modern society, the giant smokestack and aging industrial complex became an easy target.

By the 1970’s, President Nixon had created the federal government agency that would become the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the first issues for the fledgling agency to consider was arsenic emissions from the Ruston smelter. The agency held a hearing in Tacoma in 1975 to discuss new regulations that threatened to shut down the smelter. The invitation noted that “the task requires the cooperation of ASARCO, smelter workers and local residents, not to mention the understanding and support of the public at large... The outcome of all our efforts will have direct impacts on thousands of Puget Sound residents due to the serious socio-economic and health implication inherent in the decision to be made”. (Smith, 1975)

The debate continued for years. Many Rustonites, long independent and distrusting of the larger community, fought against EPA. Gallagher described the town’s heritage, “People came here looking for fire and smoke so they could make a living,” and he dismissed the health risk as “bologna.” (Pierce, 1982) His neighbor, Jean Wingard, disagreed, “They’re getting paid down there to live and work in it. I’m not getting paid to breathe it.” (Gillie, 1983) Many worried that the survival of the town itself might be jeopardized if the smelter were forced to close.

A letter to the editor captured a common concern of the time, “The loss of the smelter and the business it generates within the community will cause more than just economic damage. Closure of the smelter will also result in serious psychological damage to many families in this area. Any blue-collar worker can tell you what too often happens to a family when the father and provider looses his job. People too often think of the smelter as a bunch of ugly buildings with that big smokestack on the hill. But the smelter is also a whole lot of people and families that depend on it for a job and a livelihood.” (News Tribune, 1976)

The end finally came when the smelter furnaces were extinguished in March 1985 and the last 550 employees were sent home. “We were like a big family,” lamented employee David Huntstock. He also worried about his blue-collar skills in the growing white-collar world, “I guess I’m what you would call a functional illiterate.” He was one of 200 employees to receive retraining; 115 were placed in new jobs and 30 took early retirement. (Gillie, 1986) The financial impact was hard on the employees. The manager of the smelter credit union reflected that almost everyone managed to repay their loans, but many needed extra time. (Adams, 2005)

The huge smelter smokestack could be seen for miles and was a well known marker on navigational maps. On January 17, 1993, eight years after the smelter closed its doors, the stack took its final bow as it tumbled in eight short seconds. The adjacent bay filled with boats and an estimated 100,000 people crowded into Ruston to watch. For many longtime Rustonites, the event symbolized the larger community’s rejection of the industrial base that had built not only Ruston, but Tacoma as well.

The closure of the smelter caused an 89% drop in tax revenues for the small town. By 1987, Asarco had petitioned for a $0 value on its 97 acre property due to the clean up costs, further reducing Ruston’s tax base by $25,000 that year. Asarco tax revenue was estimated to have been $165,000 in 1982, reduced to well below $10,000 in 1988. (Ruston Block Grant Application, 1989) A 1988 needs assessment identified 54% of the Ruston households as lower income. That same assessment confirmed an aging electrical and sewer system, and major roadway concerns such as repairs needed on the main arterial, local bridge and cramped tunnel that all required major overalls in the near future. The town was able to secure grants to rebuild the electrical system and to realign the roadway to bypass the tunnel. It was later decided put the tunnel grant on hold to avoid re-doing the work in a few years until the smelter reconstruction was done in that area.

With its major tax base gone, the town had just begun to deal with the federal government. During smelter operations, regulations had been directed at on-going emissions from the stack. Within a few months of the smelter closure, EPA began an investigation into arsenic levels of the dirt in the surrounding residential area. In 1993, testing of soils was ordered in the neighborhood surrounding the smelter. But the program produced unexpected results. As the town clerk noted, “I don’t think people are as concerned about the health hazard as the devaluation of property an EPA cleanup might ironically cause.” Indeed, by 1992 some banks would not finance home loans in the area. (Clememts, 1992)

Property values were decreased for several years after the smelter closure. (Exhibit 4) That same decrease was not seen in the rest of the county. Values have increased an average of about 7% per year during this time period in both Ruston and Pierce County, but with different growth patterns. (Exhibit 4)

Everyone agreed that the Asarco property on the shore of Commencement Bay held unique opportunities for reuse. With dissension prevalent, the EPA asked that Asarco meet with the local jurisdictions to see if any agreement could be reached for future development of the property. The agency could then ensure its cleanup proposal would enhance, rather than inhibit, future potential uses. The approach was unique at the time, and reflected a growing national concern. As these types of sites were being cleaned up, the initial focus had been on the environmental requirements alone. This single-minded focus often made reuse of the property difficult. New businesses were reluctant to locate industry on these properties because of liability concerns, and because new construction meant the expensive cost of redoing any cleanup fix. Asarco held a series of workshops with the community in 1993, resulting in a Master Plan that was approved in 1997. (Aldrich, 1995)

Since 1970, Ruston census data showed some interesting trends, such as a 26% increase in housing units. The demographics of the town had undergone tremendous change, seeing a 134% increase in high school graduates and 350% increase in those with bachelor degrees. The median income had increased by 446% to $48,000 annually. The types of jobs had changed as well, with public employees increasing by 268% and self employed by 450%. Shirley felt those trends were continuing, but picking up even more speed in the most recent 5 years since the last census.
1997 Community Assessment

As Shirley reflected over the cultural changes that seemed to be gaining speed over the last two decades, she decided to compare the results of a just completed marketing research project on Ruston with a 1997 community assessment to see if any common themes surfaced. Perhaps some insights into how to better manage changes like the current condominium proposal might emerge.

The community assessment had been done eight years before by the local health department. The goal was to assess community strengths and priorities from the residents viewpoint. A total of 112 residents were interviewed, with any common responses being reported in the assessment. The formal assessment only provided a summary of comments, not any specific data gathered from the interviews.

The assessment noted the strong connection many people in the Pierce County area had to the smelter. Many Tacoma residents could trace their immigrant roots to parents who moved to the area to work at the smelter. The reasons for moving to Ruston were changing; rather than moving to town for work, newer residents were drawn because of affordable homes and the water views that had emerged after the smelter buildings were dismantled. Area businesses were primarily retail and the town was largely viewed as a residential neighborhood. Most residents now worked outside of town. The failing bridge over the train tracks that separated the town was seen as symbolic of the current status of the town needing to bridge its past to its future.

Those over 50 years old seemed to want the town to remain the same, while younger respondents wanted to enhance the town’s image. Although not spelled out in the assessment, this enhancement likely referred to a desire to remove the “contamination” stigma that Ruston dirt was known for. At the time of these interviews, the town was undergoing the massive yard replacement process ordered by EPA. This EPA project was seen “to offer a link to engaging the residents in creating a positive vision for the town in the future.”

There were common themes of wanting to preserve the safe and quiet of the small community, but an awareness of the need for increased tax revenue with Asarco gone. Some focused on wanting new industry re-established on the smelter property as the primary way to build a tax base while others saw the school as a major asset that could help re-vitalize the area. The need for general civic improvements was stressed, yet there was concern about the tax implications of increased property values for those on fixed incomes.

There was a keen sense of community and enjoyment of the small town feel in the midst of big city convenience. Older residents felt a stronger connection to the smelter, and cohesiveness through that connection. All acknowledged that the “community feels like a large family.” There was an acceptance felt by new families as they moved into town. The rumor mill ran strong and was seen as a way of caring about one’s neighbors. The corner market, with its soda fountain to foster conversation, served an important networking function. Formal leaders were identified as the elected, police and fire officials. Informal leaders were seen as business owners, realtors and developers. These were portrayed as “visionaries of the future and not afraid of change.”

There were other issues raised related to change. Some elected leaders were seen as resistant to change and unable to create a vision for the future. “Anytime you bring up activities, the Town Council has to analyze it, consider it, discuss it, and promise to get back to you. But they never decide…you have to wait too long for answers.” Local police and fire protection were important identifiers of the small town. There was concern about being annexed into the larger city of Tacoma, which was seen as faster paced and not as safe. Several assumed that annexation was inevitable with the town’s aging infrastructure and reduced tax base.

There was a common focus on the need for business on the Asarco property, “It doesn’t matter what we want to see in our future, what happens down on the waterfront will shape our future.” The on-going environmental clean up of area yards was seen as positive transition to overcome the “contamination” stigma, even though there was still debate over any health need. The primary theme was a desire to preserve the “core qualities of safety, quiet and neighborly caring.” The assessment ended with several recommendations that were never implemented.
2005 Focus Group Assessment

As she examined results of the 2005 marketing research, Shirley was struck by many similarities with the previous assessment. A group of marketing students had conducted 4 focus groups and used the results to develop a survey that would be distributed to the entire town soon. (Exhibit 3) This survey should provide quantitative data that could be analyzed in greater depth for relationships and connections to the issues raised in the focus groups. The focus groups consisted of businesses, elected leaders, long-time (over 20 years in town) and newer residents.

The current focal points centered on the newly repaired bridge and adjacent road improvements, the condominium proposal at the school and the Commercial Street lots sold by the town in 2002 that were being developed into expensive residential homes. Older residents still expressed concern that changes were happening too fast and that the many unknowns caused stress; yet newer residents felt that change was taking too long. Those new residents expected “the lid to blow off in the next three or four years” on development. Although it was acknowledged that the current changes were difficult and felt fast-paced, they were seen as common trends that were happening across society. The need to commute to work added to the fast-paced feeling. The loss of connection among neighbors along with the aging infrastructure were on-going concerns, especially the 100 year old sewer system.

The small town feel was still important to most people, although not mentioned as much or valued as strongly by newer residents. Longtime residents wanted to strengthen this feeling by organizing social events, while the newer residents felt zoning codes that required a consistent style of homes would enhance the sense of a small town. These new families were moving to town for the views and reasonable price of real estate, but without any longing for small town connections. Most residents felt that maintaining that sense of community was up to them, but was easier because of the geographic limitations of living on a peninsula. There was still a friendly acknowledgement that “everyone knows everyone else’s business.” There continued to be value placed in having an independent police and fire department, which provided shorter response times and tax advantages for businesses and homeowners. Knowing and being known to the town staff was important.

There were concerns about growing divisions between old and new residents, rich and poor and even geographically as the waterfront developed from the established neighborhood up the hill. Worries continued about seniors on fixed incomes being taxed out of their homes if property values continued to explode. There was distrust expressed on two fronts; of renters and a perceived increase in absent landlords, and of the higher income homeowners and potential new businesses on the waterfront who had more money and therefore power.

There were several comments about the difficult transition away from dependence on Asarco. There had been years of complacency after the smelter shut down, a pattern established in the days when Asarco did everything for the town. Even when the facility closed there was an expectation that the company would take care of the community. Tom Aldrich, the Asarco site manager from 1990 to 2000 and now a vice president with Asarco, was viewed as having a major influence on the redevelopment plans for the smelter property. His continued oversight of the project was reassuring to many residents.

The election of a new mayor and two new council members three years ago were seen as pivotal events. The election replaced Ruston’s elected leadership with one that encouraged immediate development and forward thinking rather than the established holding pattern of waiting for the Asarco development. That holding pattern had created a financial crisis for the town, which faced its first budget shortfall the first year the new leaders assumed office in 2001. With the Asarco development still years away, it appeared the town’s expenditures would continue to outstrip revenue into the foreseeable future. The town seemed headed for bankruptcy, and probable annexation into Tacoma. The emergency helped move one of the established council members to embrace the new direction of immediate development. One of their first actions was to sell several town owned lots on Commercial Street, a concept that had been under study by the previous council for several years.

There was a common theme in the focus groups around wanting input into continued development, especially on the Asarco property. This was contrasted with worry about slowing progress and a hope, rather than demand, that any new Asarco developer would involve the community in their direction for development of that property. Some felt the council no longer listened to input from citizens, especially on the condominium project. Newer residents saw development as an important tax base. All groups noted a huge increase in property values over the previous 9 months, with some of the longtime residents expressing strong concern over seniors being taxed out of their property.


As Shirley contemplated the town’s history, she wondered what the next steps should be. The town would elect the majority of its council and mayor in the fall. Was there any way to reduce the current divisions and conflicts, especially with an election looming? Were there effective measures the town could take to embrace the escalating rate of change that would maintain the best qualities of the small town? Even if those measures could be identified, would they be implemented and not ignored as had so many suggestions of the past?

It appeared there was not any unified vision for the future. Older residents seemed focused on cohesiveness and social structure, wanting Ruston to return to the close-nit family it had been when everyone’s lives revolved around the smelter. Newer residents were not interested in the same values, and seemed to embrace changes without any specific goal or plan for where the town was headed. They seemed to focus on structural changes that would enhance property values, envisioning Ruston would soon become “the most expensive real estate in the south Puget Sound”. Shirley had a growing sense that there needed to be a strong, clear, united picture of what Ruston should look like in 5 or 10 years or beyond if there was any hope of controlling the rollercoaster they were on; or of easing the growing divisions between different factions of town residents. Managing these changes were an important component to preserving Ruston’s quality of life.

She committed herself to closing the data gaps that would be needed to answer these questions, such as completing the survey generated by the focus groups. In addition, she needed to confirm what recent property sales values had been. She knew she had access to property value and census data, as well as the town budgets since the smelter had shut down. (Exhibit 4) She hoped careful analysis of this data would lay the groundwork for building consensus and a roadmap to a unified, realistic picture of Ruston’s future. While the rancorous crowd cheered as door closed behind the departing councilman, she hoped that roadmap could be laid out soon.

Organizational Change Management Applied to a Community

MBA Culminating Project, June 2005
by Karen Pickett

As former home to a large metal manufacturer, Ruston, Washington serves as a living example of the impact of shifting societal priorities and its impact on the community as an organization. Business principals of organizational change management can offer insight even when applied to a loosely aligned community. Lessons from such disciplines as organizational development, conflict management and strategic planning suggest the most effective change management steps for Ruston are to create consensus around a vision for the community’s future, then communicate it effectively and work to ensure organizational “fit” to facilitate that vision.

Ruston, Washington is a small town of approximately 725 residents within an area of 5 square blocks, bordered by the much larger city of Tacoma and by Puget Sound. Ruston was formed as a company town for a copper smelter around the turn of the 20th century and most of its economy and identity was tied to this company until the smelter shut down in 1985. Since that time, Ruston has struggled to deal with the financial void left from the departure of its largest taxpayer, the loss of jobs for a great number of its residents, and the stigma associated with the cleanup of residual environmental contamination. At the same time Ruston has been faced with the need to establish a new identity for the town and to forge a plan to move itself into the future.

Through Ruston’s transition of fortunes, the attendant changes have been largely random and unmanaged resulting in some level of friction, resentment and discord in the community. This research project was undertaken with the intent of identifying and designing change management techniques typically used in a business environment, to be applied to a community setting – Ruston. The objectives are to examine how past changes occurred and to determine how future change can be planned and managed. The case study examined the first objective outlined in a case study. This paper will analyze how change can be best managed and planned in a non-business organization like a community. It assumes that community leaders, like business managers, want to maintain and improve the “organization” of Ruston.

The small town of Ruston, Washington has undergone a great deal of change in its short history. In many ways, the town serves as a microcosm of cultural shift that has taken place in many communities across America, and indeed the world. In less than two decades, Ruston has made a shift from a blue-collar frontier town to a white- collar, upscale community. These changes have threatened to tear the small town apart and have impacted the collective quality of life.

As the company town for a copper smelter, which operated in and defined Ruston since before the turn of the 20th century, the town was devastated by the closure of the plant in 1985. By 1990, the federal government had declared the entire town a Superfund site because of soil contamination by arsenic and lead, byproducts of the copper smelting process. The town not only had to deal with the loss of its primary employer and contributor to its tax base, the hysteria surrounding the pollution concerns impacted Ruston’s image and internal culture. Twenty years after the departure of Ruston’s benevolent benefactor, the town is now experiencing a new crisis.

Having dealt with years of major financial shortfalls and flirted with insolvency, the town recently approved a controversial development project for the construction of a multimillion-dollar high-rise condominium structure in a prime location directly in the middle of Ruston. The change has now shifted from coping with the loss of the town’s major employer and dealing with the stigma of a major environmental cleanup, to new pressures from developers and a different class of white-collar, higher income residents who are attracted to Ruston because its location. Many of the new residents and economic power brokers want a new community identity, but one which incorporates the benefits of still being a small town.

New Data
A survey of town residents was just completed. The survey was developed using information gathered in a series of focus group meetings held with different classes of town residents. There were a total of 79 responses out of about 350 surveys distributed, approximately a 22% return rate. This is a fairly high response, an indication that town residents are engaged and willing to make an effort to have their opinion heard. 46% of the respondents were male, 54% were female, 61% were married. There were 7 respondents who choose not to list their income, but of those that gave their annual income, 8.2% were below $25,000, 46.6% were between $25,000 to $65,000 and 45.2% were over $65,000 annual income. 29% of respondents had lived in Ruston for more than 18 years, 20% have lived in town 5 to 18 years and 51% had lived here less than 5 years. 86% of the respondents owned their home. (Exhibit A)

Q 1 ~ Ruston’s status as an independent town is important to me and my family: There was not overwhelming agreement with this statement. Only about a third were in strong agreement, with the neutral response registering the second highest. This is an important finding, especially when considering that the majority of respondents had lived in town less than 5 years. It appears these new residents do not care as strongly about keeping Ruston independent. If town leaders want to encourage “pro” Ruston sentiment, they should consider ways to communicate the town’s benefits to residents. Perhaps a “did you know?” box in the town newsletter with a positive statement about the town listed each month might help, such as the fact that property taxes are lower in Ruston than in Tacoma.
Q 2 ~ It is important to have access to my elected officials and town staff: Respondents were in strong agreement with this statement. Given the strength of this response, officials could look at additional ways to give residents personal access to them. There were 45 respondents who supported the concept of an on-line bulletin board. Perhaps sessions for live chat could be scheduled with elected officials or other leaders such as members of the new business district.
Q 3 ~ Knowing my neighbors and having a sense of community is important to me: This statement elicited even stronger agreement. It was a much stronger response than the concept of keeping Ruston as a separate municipality, indicating that many who did not feel strongly about Ruston’s status as a town still want to know their neighbors. Building on this desire for sense of community may present leaders with an opportunity to build support for the town while providing connections to neighbors that are not available in a larger city. Social events come to mind as a first step. Finding ways to connect the fire and police departments to the community in greater measure would enhance resident’s understanding of Ruston’s unique offerings.
Q 4 ~ Ruston’s location is the key attraction and it doesn’t matter whether I live in Ruston or Tacoma: There were some problems with the way this statement was worded, which are reflected in the responses. The question dealt with two different issues and it was unclear what was being asked. The responses to this statement are not reliable.
Q 5 ~The town of Ruston is financially stable: A large majority of respondents disagreed with or were neutral to this statement, indicating an understanding of the town’s current budget shortfalls.
Q 6 ~ Ensuring the financial stability of Ruston is one of the highest priorities of elected officials: There was strong agreement with this general concept. The statement did not address how leaders should achieve that stability.
Q 7 ~ Promoting development in Ruston is essential to providing a strong tax base: Although there was agreement with this statement, it was not as strong as the general need to ensure financial stability.
Q 8 ~ It is more important to maintain a small town feel than to maximize financial return through development: Although the majority of respondents agreement with this statement, there were more who disagreed here than had disagreed with the previous statement about promoting development. This indicates a concern about the cost of development to the small town feeling. As the town develops, finding ways to address these concerns will be an important factor in maintaining a positive sense of community for Ruston.
Q 9 ~ It is important to me to be informed about community issues: This statement elicited the strongest response of any statement. It indicates that people want to be involved in issues that impact their community. This is an important principle for leaders as they make decisions and attempt to communicate with citizens. Attempts to inform and involve them should be a priority.
Q 10 ~ It is important to have my voice heard regarding the future of Ruston: This statement had a very similar response to the Q 3 (the importance of knowing your neighbors). Both had strong agreement, indicating a similar level of concern between building a sense of community and for being involved in Ruston’s future. There may be synergies between these two issues by involving citizens in developing a common vision for the community’s future.

Going into this survey, there was an expectation that there would different opinions expressed by different groups of residents. To test this theory, a series of “t” tests were run to see if there was any statistically significant difference in the response to questions by different groups of people. Questions 1, 3 and 7 were chosen as questions that represented the general themes. Only three relationships were found to have significant differences. Those with different income levels felt differently about promoting development as a tax base, and those who had lived in town the longest felt stronger than the other two groups about keeping Ruston as a separate municipality.

The main findings of the survey indicate that those who have lived in town longer want and are more closely drawn to Ruston as a unique, independent entity. If that sentiment is also important to local leaders, they should find ways to connect newer residents to those who have lived in town longer. This connection is one way to increase that interest in newer residents. It will be important to do this in ways that appeal to this target group.

In some ways, the town is undergoing a similar process to an organizational transformation as described by Harvey & Brown in their textbook An Experiential Approach to Organizational Development. (p. 46)

The town’s new focus on development is revolutionary and changing the face of the community as new structures are built. A move towards an organizational development model, rather than radical “transformation” may produce a more effective outcome, especially for the relationships and interactions among residents.

Organizational development (OD) seeks to introduce internal change to make the organizational system more adaptive to a dynamic environment. The goal is to improve an organization’s self-renewal process so managers can quickly initiate change in the culture to meet new problems as they are emerging rather than waiting for a crisis to force change. It focuses on relationships and interactions rather than just the organizational structure. It is helpful to analyze Ruston using the OD lenses.

Structural Subsystem:The municipal structure is subject to a change in leadership every 4 years with a new mayor; more often if a new council majority is elected. Many residents commented on how important town personnel were to the sense of identity for the town. With a strong mayor form of government, the mayor can choose to replace all staff upon election. This uncertainty can impact the municipal system in areas like staff morale, or with new direction for the town when a new person is elected. This can have great impact on system outputs. (Harvey & Brown, p. 38)

Of particular importance is the role of town clerk. This is the person who operates the day-to-day functions of the town and is the face the public sees when dealing with town issues. She is also the one who has to answer to criticism from the council and implement the direction of the mayor. In many ways, she serves as the manager for the town with very little decision making power.

Technical Subsystem: As it has struggled financially, the town has not kept up with modern technology used by many larger cities. Utility bills are still handled by hand for the most part. There is no system to pay bills on-line. There is little use of email for communication and town does not have web page.

Psychosocial Subsystem: Ruston has been a traditional blue-collar town that culturally revolved around the smelter. That culture reflected the company culture; rough, gritty and defiant of the outside world. Traditionally, multiple generations shared the same house, living in cramped quarters. Appearances were not as important as connections. The pivotal norms of this culture were a strong allegiance to Asarco and Ruston and a distain for the “weaker” outside world that was ruled by their emotions rather than the facts, especially on environmental issues. These norms were based on a strong sense of connection to and dependence on each other and the smelter. The socialization process was immediate when new residents moved in. Neighbors welcomed them and let them know what the norms were. There were many opportunities for socialization, especially if one worked at the smelter. As a lower income community, recreational activities centered on social events rather than trips outside town. And as a small community with a little over 300 voters, connection to town politics was always strong.

The demographics of town residents are clearly changing. Residents are higher income, more highly educated and with the closure of the smelter 20 years ago, there is no longer a central focal point for social connections. People move in for self-centered reasons like water views and affordable home prices. These new residents bring a new interest in property values, structural improvements and an external focus on appearances rather than the emotional connection between neighbors.

Managerial Subsystem: The management approach to change by the mayor and council has vacillated between sluggish-thermostat to reactive since the smelter closure. (see below, Harvey & Brown, p. 35) The prior administration operated in the sluggish mode, very structured and intolerant of risk. The new administration is more reactive, responding to the financial crisis with major corrective action based in part on the outside stimulus of developers. A more productive focus would be that of renewing-transformational management style that can introduce “change to deal with future conditions before those conditions actually occur.” (pg. 37)

The recommendations in this paper will help move Ruston as an organization in that direction. This is more difficult in a political setting because new leadership with new priorities can be introduced at any time, but the goal of anticipating and preparing for change is valuable to any administration.

The external environment has been changing as well. Across the whole of society, dependence on and interaction with neighbors is not as strong as it once was. And the environmental/regulatory world has imposed action on Ruston that it did not want. For the municipality, many needs were being passed to the local level as unfounded mandates, and the town’s aging utilities continue to draw on dwindling financial sources. The escalating impact from forces beyond the town’s control can add to tensions and conflict, causing a paralysis rather than encouraging openness and planning for future changes.

Goals and Values Subsystem: In some ways, the Ruston’s established culture was a closed system, and has not passed along its values to the newcomers. With the loss of Asarco, much of the basis for the culture is dissipating. Even after the smelter closed, issues surrounding the company continued to dominate town life with the on-going environmental debates. The expectation that Asarco would continue to sustain the town was a deep part of the culture, especially as these issues continued to confront the town. Some of this expectation may have transferred to Aldrich, the manger through much of this period. His continued presence in the company structure at a higher level was reassuring to many. This subconscious belief may have contributed to the focus on development of the smelter property as the primary way to sustain the town. The current shift to look for other development opportunities may have been an unwelcome surprise for some who wanted change to only occur on the isolated Asarco property and not impact the area where current residents live.

There are several key principles of successful organizational development that will be important factors in preserving and enhancing Ruston’s quality of life:

1) Understand old culture: There were many longtime residents who expressed this concern and felt their point of view was not valued. More opportunity for input and shared experiences with this group are important.
2) Encourage change in employees: Town staff often feels the burnt of any proposed changes. Finding ways that they can give input into the town’s strategic direction and where the town chooses to focus its energies will be critical to successful implementation of any change.
3) Don’t impose cultural change: Because a community is much more loosely aligned than the typical business organization, imposing cultural change will be impossible. Keeping that principle in mind when making changes and measuring for its impact will be an important factor in any reasonable analysis.
4) Lead with vision: This is one of the most important principles for community improvement. Vision will naturally motivate people to change. Key to this leadership is effective communication of the vision, along with community input and ownership of the vision.
5) Large-scale change takes time: This will be important for residents to keep in mind when electing new leaders every 2 years. Immediate gratification will not be possible. This principle should be part of the communication efforts.
6) Live the new culture: This will be important for elected officials, town staff and the change leaders in the community. (Harvey & Brown, p. 76)

Create A Vision:
The first specific recommendation is to create a unified picture of where the town wants to be in 10 or 20 years. Development of this vision must be inclusive, and include elected officials, town staff, longtime and new residents, leaders from the new business district, members of the planning and economic development committees and any other informal change leaders identified in the community along with the public at large. Once consensus has formed around that picture, the town needs to develop a strategic plan that will lay out specific goals, objectives and steps to implement that vision.

Development of Ruston’s strategy will involve defining a concise mission or purpose statement, refining a vision statement, determining strategic intent to address why specific directions are pursued. This analysis will lead to identifying specific goals and objectives. The next step is to review available resources and articulate Ruston’s core competencies. It would be good explore any available alliances. The new business district that encompases both Tacoma and Ruston busineses is a good start. There may be other alliances around specific issues or goals, or more general alliances available with similar sized municipalities. (Johnson & Scholes, p. 378) Once these pieces are in place, the long-term strategies and direction should be outlined and monitored to ensure success. (Johnson & Scholes, p. 13)

Community-wide strategic planning was used successfully in Rock Hill, South Carolina. A ten year review pointed to some principles that would be helpful for Ruston to consider as they embark on a smaller, but similar, process. This approach was identified as a tool to assess the communities problems and identify opportunities for improvement to the quality of life. Alliances between civic, business and governmental organizations were key elements of success. The group developed a clear mission, vision and specific steps/ projects to achieve that vision. The planning and implementation process included on-going communication and engagement of key citizen factions. These citizens felt they had learned more about their community and how to work within it to solve problems by developing and implementing a strategic plan. Committed leadership for the full 10 years was an important factor to keeping the program on track. Leaders called a second conference at the 5 year mark to revisit the plan and adjust the vision.

The planning process used extensive citizen participation that helped build consensus, secured resources and produced creative ideas. The planning process worked to include citizens that represented the community in terms of geography, demographics and political viewpoints. Although the cost of Rock Hill’s program is beyond the scope available to Ruston, a focus on these principles in any planning process will help build the community. The recent survey confirmed that residents have a strong desire to have their voice heard. The envisioning process should include large community forums along with small-scale meetings. Facilitation of the large group meetings will be important. Methods encourage different opinions in a civil manner should be encouraged. On the smaller scale, town meetings with elected folks at neighbor’s homes (i.e. coffee hours with the mayor) may be an effective method for gathering input and communicating shared goals.

All this leads to building what Likert describes as a System 4 organization, where management works to create open communication up and down the system, where ideas are sought and rewarded by leaders from subordinates and policies are clear, easy to implement and not cumbersome. At a community level, this means elected officials who are accessible and responsive to input from residents, town staff that is friendly and able to be responsive, and citizens who can disagree in a healthy, respectful manner while keeping in mind the greater community good over individual concerns. (Harvey and Brown, p. 405)

Communicate the Vision:
All the planning and effort will not mean anything if the new direction is not understood or agreed to by those who have to implement it. As changes are introduced, some strategies to lessen resistance to change should be implemented. Methods to provide on-going input into the vision, especially from impacted parties, and to communicate the new direction should be a priority.

Using the business model of a “change initiative”, where a business organization deliberately introduces change, offers some insight when used to examine the success of such programs. HR Focus notes that many such attempts at change fail because the business only focuses on its strategy and its structure. They ignore the critical aspect of how the change impacts relationships among employees. This principle is critical to any community change initiative.

It is important to build support and make relationships stronger. The article offers the following suggestions to achieve that goal: 1) Frame the change in simple, positive terms 2) Emphasize that the new focus is a group effort 3) Get started, don’t be afraid to learn from experience 4) Start from a point of readiness, this does not have to be top down. It is helpful to find ways to encourage people to focus on the collective goal rather than individual agendas. Bear in mind, when people feel like they “loose”, they will shut down, pulling out their energy and creativity.

Another important component of communication is to increase the use of new technology. Using up-to-date technology will allow the town to communicate more effectively with its newer residents, an important part of Ruston’s long-term sustainability. There was strong support in the survey for an on-line interactive bulletin board. A town web page would be helpful. There are likely improvements to the utility payment system where technology would be beneficial.

Ensure Organizational Fit:
Any new direction must “fit” within the system that will implement it. It is vital that the system be continuously analyzed to ensure it is set up to help achieve the desired outcomes and goals. This principle will help address both current challenges and ensure long-term success of any new community vision.

As the new strategic plan is developed, all change methods should be on the table. This includes structural changes (i.e. design changes to the municipal structure that includes staff, committees, elected functions), exploration of technological changes that would help implement change (i.e. an on-line bulletin board for input and discussion), and changes in behavioral methods such as different reward systems and motivational techniques to reward team building rather than individual accomplishments (rewards for both staff and citizens, perhaps a community award for citizens who help achieve a shared goal or improve the quality of life). Rewards and incentives for town staff will be especially important as the new vision is implemented.

Nadler and Tushman’s congruence model offer some helpful analysis tools for examining how organizationally “fit” Ruston is in terms of meeting its goals. First, examine the system input from sources such as the external environment, resources and collective history. Then examine current strategy, defined as the “explicit choices about markets, offerings, technology, and distinctive competence.” The author’s offer the following advice, “The manager’s (mayor’s) challenge… is to design and build an organization capable of accomplishing the strategic objectives. Long-term strategic objectives must be refined into a set of internally consistent short term objectives and supporting strategies. In practice, strategy flows fro a shared vision of the organizations future – a coherent idea of its size and architectural shape, its competitive strengths, its relative position of leadership in the markets and its operating culture.” (p. 30) The final analysis should examine output: what is produced, the system’s performance and effectiveness. Has the organization met its objectives? Did it use its resources well? It is positioned for future well? If not, identify the performance gaps and work to correct them.

One tool that might be helpful is a force field analysis. Groups can identify the restraining and driving forces around the issue of development for example. Issues like the town’s financial needs and pressures from developers are potential driving forces, and the desire to remain small as one of the restraining forces. It is good to examine typical restraining forces such as fear of the unknown, disruption of routine, loss of existing benefits, threat of positions of power (i.e. threats to security, redistribution of power, disturbing existing social networks) and pressures to conform to norms and culture. This type of analysis may help with other issues as well, such as social connections, staff morale and resource allocation. Implementing a root cause analysis may also be helpful on some issues. When a problem is identified, ask “why” it occurred at least 5 times. Insert diagram Generate a list of causes, not symptoms for an identified problem, then look for commonalities among those symptoms. Is there system fit (or misfit) that these causes point to? These will be good places to focus solutions.

The ultimate goal of ensuring organizational fitness is to build what Ollhoff and Walcheski term a complex adaptive system. Such systems are able to successfully adapt to an ever-changing environment, a quality important to Ruston as it faces an increasingly turbulent future. Characteristics of this type of system are that it is complex and adaptive and it has a strong ability to learn. The system has “learned” when it changes to make itself more fit, something that happen internally using feedback, both amplifying (produces more) or dampening (produces less). Fitness and strength is defined in terms of diversity. Complexity and chaos are embraced. Leaders are encouraged to look for patterns in the chaos, rather than straight line cause and effect relationship. These adaptive systems are able to self organize and have a quality the authors call “emergence”, where “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. (p. 86-97)

Conflict Resolution:
Given the current division and heated debates, process intervention strategies should be implemented to facilitate better communication between the opposing groups. Group process should be examined as to the communication processes used to date, member roles and functions, how problems are solved and decisions made, what the group norms are and analysis of different leadership styles. This should be done among the elected officials and town staff at a minimum, and preferably with other groups such as the planning commission. Techniques for team building would be helpful for elected officials, such as role analysis or team development meetings that explore the issues just listed. Team problems are common to political processes, especially given the volatile nature of the recent political climate surrounding the condo development and the upcoming election season. Issues such as group think (close mindedness, conformity pressure), escalation of commitment, Abilene paradox (communication and information failures), group polarization should be watched for and addressed as they arise.

As the functioning within these groups improves, focus on inter-group relationships should be explored. Harvey and Brown note that “groups in conflict with one another spend a high degree of their effort, time and energy directed toward the conflict instead of toward goal accomplishment” (pg 314) As a new vision is developed, open communication that builds the ability to listen, debate, make a decision and move on should be encouraged. That means people are encouraged to disagree and debate, but in a civil manner. Healthy conflict is valued and encouraged. Open feedback loops should be developed that encourage input. But in order to be effective, that input must be implemented. There are several conflict management strategies that would be helpful in the lingering bitterness over the condominium development, as well as for future debates as changes continue. Joan Stepsis suggests these negotiation skills for resolving conflicts, often referred to as integrative negotiation:

1) Diagnosis: determining whether the conflict is ideological (values) or real (tangible). If this is a value conflict, it can be very hard to negotiate. It requires that the parties focus on the tangible effect of the conflict in order to find a realistic solution. In this case, it may mean finding ways to introduce the new condo residents to town values and history rather than fighting the introduction of the new residents.
2) Initiation: In order to resolve conflict, there has to be a willingness to address it. As the issues are confronted, it is important not to demean or attack other viewpoints. Elected leaders have been able to avoid responding in kind to the angry attacks thus far. Finding ways to encourage civil dialogue will be important to resolving the lingering bitterness of this debate, as well as setting the stage for a healthy debate on the next conflict.
3) Listening: Both sides must be capable of listening. That listening encourages an exchange of information that helps produce a better outcome. Lax and Sebernius encourage listening for both instrumental (interests that are important to future dealings) and intrinsic interests (those that are independent of later encounters). Given the nature of the community setting, the issues being debated were instrumental in nature and pertained to the future of the town – as well as the on-going relationships by the residents who were arguing. Interests can be related to the substance of the conflict, the process of resolving the conflict, the relationships involved or interests in principle (values). They can be tangible, such as the specific outcome sought in the debate, or intangible, such as the comfort of slowing down the rate of change so that one can adapt to the new situation. Intangible interests include things like our core beliefs and values and their influence on the debate.

Perhaps setting up smaller scale meetings before the public hearings with representatives with these skills from both sides of the conflict would have helped make the hearings more civil. Those small group meetings may be productive now in repairing some of the division created by this conflict.4) Problem Solving: The first step is to clarify the problem. At this point, with the condo project approved, the problem is more subtle and resolves around resolving the on-going debate of how to gain acceptance of this new direction. Once the problem is outlined, generating and evaluating alternative solutions is needed. Then the group should decide which alternative best meets everyone’s needs, decide how to implement a solution and how to evaluate that solution once implemented. For Ruston, bringing together key leaders of the dissenting groups to work through this process around the issue of how to deal with the impacts of the new condo would set the stage for a healthier community, not only for this issue but for the next conflict.

There are several strategies for generating alternatives, such as log-rolling, finding a bridge solution, look for ways to expand the pie, exploring nonspecific compensation and finding ways to cut the costs for compliance. Log-rolling is a technique that requires the parties to find more than one issue in the conflict, and then trade off agreement on those issues so that both sides gain at least some of their preferred outcomes. Non-specific compensation refers to ways to reward negotiators for acquiescing on an issue, such a business groups’ agreement to support a condo project in exchange for free advertising to the new residents. A bridge solution is one that meets both parties’ needs, such as resolving a debate over traffic patterns with a route that all sides agree on, rather than imposing a route proposed by one side or the other. As the alternatives are weighed, it is helpful to agree in advance on the evaluation criteria. Clear and unbiased communication is important to building trust, as is the commitment to work together for a solution that meets all parties’ needs.David Feldman identifies several strategies used with inter-group conflicts.

On the condo issue for Ruston, there have been some “conflict diffusion” attempts by appealing to the super-ordinate goal of survival for the town. Feldman encourages “conflict confrontation” strategies to uncover all underlying issues and find a solution that satisfies all parties. These include problem solving techniques as already discussed, and organizational redesign such as clearly defined work groups or creating the role of an integrator who ensures that input from all interested parties is taken into account. Although the town cannot afford an additional staff position to fill the integrator role, the concept of ensuring input from all parties should be integrated into all administrative and legislative decisions.

One approach is to build a system that works to prevent, manage, contain and resolve conflict at its lowest level. Jennifer Lynch suggests that an effective conflict management system must be all encompassing throughout the organization. The culture must encourage conflict competencies, such as the ability to handle disagreement. The goal of such a system is to uncover and deal with the root cause of the conflict. A conflict management system should have multiple access points and include options and choice for those in conflict. For instance, a resident with a concern should be encouraged to talk to the mayor or the town clerk or the police chief or come to a council meeting to air their concern. All avenues should include support structures so that appropriate action can be taken no matter which avenue is used. Brett, Goldburg and Ury add the suggestion of providing adequate training, resources and incentives for those on the front lines trying to resolve these conflicts.

The text book Essentials of Negotiation identifies some benefits of conflict. These benefits can be communicated to residents as encouragement to build the openness needed for a healthy, sustainable town. Conflict helps us learn and cope with problems, it promises adaptation, strengthens relationships and morale (when solved), promotes self awareness, enhances personal and psychological development and it can be stimulating and fun. (Lewicki, p. 17)

Focus group discussion also highlighted the importance of town staff to the small town ambience. People in the roles of town clerk, police and fire chief, maintenance personnel play an important part in the small town, something that should be taken into consideration when selected people for those jobs. Maintaining good morale among town staff should be a priority to keep turn over low and help enhance a positive feeling in town hall. Thomas Davenport offers many relevant insights into viewing employees as investors, along with ways to build and leverage the human capital. Ways to apply these principles should be explored openly by the mayor – along with exploring if these same principles might be applicable to the larger community as well.

Brett, J. M., Goldberg, S. B. and Ury, W. I. (1994). Managing conflict: The strategy of dispute systems design. Business Week Executive Briefing Service. 6, 1-19.
Davenport, Thomas O. (1999) Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Feldman, D. C. (2003). A taxonomy of conflict-resolution strategies. In J. Gordon, (Ed.), Managing Conflict at Work (pp. 29-38). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
Harvey, Don & Donald R. Brown. (2001). An experiential approach to organizational development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.HR Focus. (1995). Using change to build community: the key is to focus on the change in working dynamics. V. 72, n 12, 6.
Johnson, Gerry and Kevan Scholes. (2002). Exploring Corporate Strategy. Essex, England: Prentice Hall.Lax, D. A. & Sebenius, J. K. (1986). Interests: The measure of negotiation. In D. A. Lax & J. K. Sebenius, The Manager as Negotiator (pp. 63-87). New York: The Free Press.
Lewicki, Roy J. and David M. Sanders and Bruce Barry and John Minton. (2004) Essentials of Negotiation. Boston: McGraw Hill Irwin. Lynch, J. F. (2001). Beyond ADR: A systems approach to conflict management. Negotiation Journal, 17, 207-216.
Nadler, David A. and Michael L. Tushman. (1997). Competing By Design: The Power of Organizational Architecture. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ollhoff, Jim and Michael Walcheski. (2002). Stepping in Wholes. Eden Prarie, NM: Sparrow Media Group, Inc.
Stepsis, J. (2003). Conflict-resolution strategies. In J. Gordon, (Ed.), Managing Conflict at Work (pp. 19-23). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
Wheeland, Craig M. Implementing a Community-Wide Strategic Plan: Rock Hill’s Empowering the Vision 10 Years Later. (2003). American Review of Public Administration. V. 33, n 1. 46-69.

The View From Here

As I look out my window to the water stretched out below, I wonder what view greeted the distant occupant of this house when it was built in 1912. What was life like for former inhabitants of this little town? Did they face the same struggles as a community? Were their heartaches and joys the same as ours today? Was the town close-knit or divided? Has the view out my window changed or remained the same?

Words help to paint pictures, to make the imagined real to the reader. Living in a small town can bring meaning to words only dreamed about in modern suburbia. Community: a body of people living in the same place under the same laws. Home: the social unit formed by a family living together, a place of origin, a congenial environment. Society: a voluntary association of persons for common ends, i.e. companionship, a part of a community bound together by common interests and standards. Such words blend into stories that make a group of individuals into a community, into a town. These pages will document but a few of the stories of my home, Ruston, and give fleeting glimpses of the pictures that might have been seen out my window over the past century.

The town of Ruston remains hidden, tucked away at the north end of Tacoma’s waterfront between an old dark tunnel and Point Defiance Park. The tiny town stands, in many ways, as one of the last vestiges of small town America. Surrounded on all sides by the big city of Tacoma, community connections are strong, neighbors know one another and civic pride is pervasive.

Long before settlers moved into Commencement Bay, the native Americans used this bluff as a burial ground for their dead.[1] The Puyallup tribe gathered food from the shoreline as timber stood tall on the hillside. The view of hillside began to change by the 1860’s as the new community of Tacoma began to develop just to the south. The United States claimed the land to the north at the tip of Commencement Bay as a military reservation, leaving a stretch of undeveloped land between that would become the town of Ruston.

The area might have developed as just another Tacoma neighborhood but for the seeds sown when a lead smelter was located on this patch of land in 1889.[2] Early photos show lumber mills lining the shoreline from Point Defiance along the bay, including sites on either side of the smelter. Once the timber had been cleared, the land would have likely sat vacant until population growth overtook it. But housing for smelter employees brought the area to life long before Tacoma spread around it, creating a separate community at the edge of the military reservation.

Ruston’s tiny shoreline housed many businesses by the turn of the century; besides the smelter, a lumber mill continued to operate to the south as well as a brickyard. On the south side of the brickyard, just outside of town, there was a Japanese housing facility.[3] The military reservation had been opened to the greater community for use as a park, creating a new destination point for many in Tacoma and bringing visitors through the area via trolley car lines that ran north and south down Pearl Street.[4]

Early census data shows that a thriving community was well established even before the town incorporated in 1906. An 1880 census was taken at a logging camp that may have been located in the Point Defiance area. By 1900, several homes are listed in the area along Pearl Street. The industrial nature of the community is clear by the 1910 census. Most of the residences had at least one single man listed as a boarder or roomer. Many of the homes show extended families living together, listing mother-in-laws, aunts, cousins and stepchildren at the same address.

There was a thriving hotel business in Ruston by 1910. Six addresses had over 10 people listed as boarders, with another seven housing at least five roomers. These in-house communities were often immigrants of the same origin. The area around North 49th Street had 17 homes with boarders, with all the occupants born Austria, Sweden or Norway. In the majority of the residences, most spoke Slovenian or Croatian with only one or two who could speak English. Most worked at the smelter. The only exception was a boarding house with 17 Japanese who worked at a sawmill. North 51st Street, which divides the town in half, had at least two major hotels at the bottom of the hill near the smelter gates. One location had a mixture of boarders who were primarily born in midwestern states and worked at a variety of local business. The other had 18 residents from Hungary who spoke Romanian, most of whom worked at the smelter. The area north of 51st Street was single family homes with very few extra occupants.[5]

One of Ruston’s founders was JP Garrison. His story is reflective of many of the turn-of-the-century men who formed the backbone of the community. He moved from Texas to Old Tacoma to live with his cousin without much education. He was sickly and not expected to live long. But he seemed to flourish in his new environment, building one of the first homes in the Ruston in about 1890. He made his early living with a team of horses that he would hire out to clear logs from Point Defiance park. But during the economic downturn of 1890, he sold his horses and went to work for the smelter. JP was one of the first councilmen elected and although he died just after WWII, the family remained active in local politics until the early 1990’s, when his daughter-in-law Etta passed away.[6]

One of the early tasks for the town fathers was to install sewers for these many homes. At one of the first council meetings, 40 property owners presented a petition to the town and agreed to pay $5 each for the construction of a main sewer line. But 9 others protested levying any taxes to pay for the sewer. The motion to build the line passed with only three votes on Dec. 10, 1906.[7] The town later passed an ordinance requiring homes to connect to the system, making it illegal to “maintain cesspools on the premises where sewers were accessible.”[8]

Leslie Tallman was appointed the first town marshal on January 1, 1907. He worked on law enforcement when he was not busy at his smelter job. A street and alley committee was appointed that first year to deal with roadway issues. Mr. Chambers donated “plank enough” to the committee to build a crossing over 51st and Pearl street and the marshal was “authorized to take the matter in hand and see that the crossing was put down in a substantial manner.” The committee originally authorized Seattle/Tacoma Power Company to build a new electrical system with a 50 year franchise, but after objections were raised about features of the powerlines, the full council denied the franchise.[9] This denial apparently caused problems when Tacoma reported that they could not supply power to Ruston because they had contracted with the same Seattle/Tacoma Power Company.

By spring of 1907, the fledgling town was ready to build its own town hall. The manager of the smelter, Mr. Rust, offered the town a lot next to the Darr Hotel on 51st street, which the town accepted with construction costs of the new facility estimated at $1762. In the meantime, the town was trying to clean up its image. The marshal was instructed to notify residents to clear up their yards and “put rubbish in barrels and have it hauled away.” An ordinance was passed that authorized the impounding and killing of stray dogs, and Mr. Rust was asked for a location to keep impounded dogs and cattle.[10]

Along with the hotels, a commercial district took shape around the intersection of 51st and Pearl Streets. Most residents lived, worked and played within the five block town limits. To help keep them entertained, the building that is now Coles Tavern on 51st began a theater with a stage lit by kerosene lamps.[11] The neighboring building, now an antique mall, was a grocery store for many years. A large drugstore operated across the street in the building that is now the Antique Sandwich Company. During the 1940’s, a well known jazz club was located in the Showboat Tavern building just south of the theater.[12] Not to be outdone, the smelter had a clubhouse a few blocks away on N. 52nd and Bennett Street. It closed during World War II, but local children continued to sneak in at night and use the bowling lanes and pool tables.[13]

It is unclear what impact the first world war had on this tiny town. But many documents remain that show how World War II affected Ruston. Because the production of copper was important to the war effort, the federal government took over operation of the smelter. Barracks were constructed close by to house the many workers, many of whom were brought in to replace young men who had been called into military service. The smelter produced a newsletter called “The Slag” during the war years that was sent to all former employees. The newsletter was an important reminder of home to those on the battlelines, and a way for them to stay in contact with each other by publishing letters from the servicemen. One wrote, “I wish to add my thanks for sending me the ‘Slag’. It helps link the broken chain between us and home...wishing all...continous success so we can all meet again when the plant whistle blows in the very near future.”[14]

Many who grew up in this town say the world revolved around the smelter whistle. The sound was heard at each shift change, bringing an instant flood of workers to and from the smelter at the bottom of the hill. The whistle was a signal for children to hurry home, the call for firemen to respond to help and it even blew to welcome in the new year each New Years Eve. Even though her husband walked down the hill to work each morning, Myrtle Johnson talked about how the blast was her signal to take the car to pick up him from work each afternoon.[15] John Krillich, who grew up in town, described the rush after the whistle as “the sidewalks were just black with men. It was a veritable parade up and down Pearl Street”.[16]

Ruston has always housed several taverns to quench the thirst of its many hardworking smeltermen. But the small town has its church buildings as well. A Lutheran church is now home to an antique shop at N. 52nd and Pearl Street. But a congregation met there until at least the 1950’s.[17] Just down the street, next to Showboat Tavern, a brick building held Glad Tidings Assembly of God church for many years. Glad Tidings has moved out of Ruston but the building is now home to the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.

Over the years, some local eccentrics have taken on legendary status. Sanitary Sam lived on Commercial Street near the base of the smelter stack. He was well known for his collection of garbage. The hillside behind his house was littered with appliances and junk. It is rumored that he died after he was forced to take a bath.[18]

Chicken Olie, who lived at corner of North 50th and Commercial Streets, had a similar reputation. He had chickens, goats and rabbits living in the house. When some young schoolboys were caught shooting pigeons in town, the marshal punished them by having them help clean out the structure after the town had condemned it. It was a daunting task. Rather than wash dishes, Olie would eat off newspapers, each meal adding a new layer to his dining room table. One of the young men noted the poultry company who came to take the chickens and swore he would never buy one of their products again. Town officials moved Olie into a nursing home, burned his old house and built him a new one. He set the new house on fire the day after moving back.[19]

Another location for childhood legends were the old smelter barracks. There were stories about a murder there during the war, and kids would sneak in after they were deserted and skate in the old cafeteria. The area eventually became the home and junkyard of another local legend, Leo Wingard. Leo was often at odds with town officials, creating numerous court battles as the town tried to get him to clean up his property. There are rumors that early in the battle, the town fire department refused to put out a fire at the old barracks, leaving some to wonder if one of the town officials had set the fire deliberately.[20] Leo ran for election on more than one occasion and almost won a seat in 1977 when he tied with Doris Sage. The tie was broken by a coin toss, with Leo losing.[21] He later claimed the election was rigged and sued the county elections department.[22]

The most memorable structure in Ruston over the past century has been the smelter smokestack. It was built in 1917 and stood 571 feet tall on the bluff overlooking the smelter. The structure was built in just 9 months, using teams of horses to cut a deep circular base into the clay soil. It was the tallest stack in the world at the time. But the record did not stand long. An earth-quake the first year caused damage that required the removal of the top ten feet of brick.

The stack saw its share of action over the years. It was news when it got a new coat of paint,[23] and was even used for a wedding in 1929.[24] It was a popular site for protesters, with environmental groups using it for occasional messages supporting their cause.[25] Even after the fires cooled under the stack, banners were hung by the daring who would sneak up its ladder. A local family hung a remembrance to their mother in 1991. Even with sticks of dynamite drilled into its brick, the night before the stack was brought down, a foolhardy radio fan hung a sheet celebrating a ‘blast the stack’ party.[26]

The stack was imploded on January 17, 1993, eight years after the smelter closed its doors. An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Ruston to watch the event. The local newspaper reported that the old smelter whistle would signal the fall of the chimney, not realizing that the whistle was inoperable without steam from the smelter furnaces. So police sirens tried to substitute and shortly after noon, the stack fell in 8 seconds to sound of boat horns and yells, and the bittersweet tears of those watching.

For many the demise of the smelter stack signaled only good things. But for many longtime Rustonites, it was a symbol of the rejection by the larger community of the industrial base that had built not only Ruston, but also Tacoma. It was a reminder of the lean years ahead, struggling to survive without businesses to tax or employees to house. While many in Tacoma were applauding as the dust cleared, some locals were quietly mourning the end of an era and wondering about the future of the little town. Doomsday prophecies about Ruston’s inability to survive without the smelter had been abundant for decades, but somehow the community remains intact almost 15 years after that last employee clocked out.

In many ways, the view from my window has changed dramatically. There is no smelter at the bottom of the hill. Ruston survives as a bedroom community, working out a new identity for itself in the midst of a changing world. Yet much has remained constant. Neighbors know one another here. Families watch each others children grow and new generations take the place of the last. In a word, ‘community’ becomes a verb here in Ruston. Its a great view.

[1] Michael Sullivan, Local Historian, Personal conversation with author, October 1998.
[2] The News Tribune, Smelter flourished in early 1900s, 9 August 1985.
[3] Stanford Atlas Maps, Vol. I, 1912, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library.
[4] Murray and Rosa Morgan, South On The Sound, (Windsor Publications: Woodland Hills, California 1984), 104.
[5] Census, Pierce County Washington 1880, 1900, 1910, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library.
[6] Lee Garrison, Ruston childhood resident, Personal conversation with author, 13 May 1998.
[7] Ruston Council Meeting Minutes, 10 December 1906.
[8] Ruston Ordinance Number 15, January 1907.
[9] Ruston Council Minutes, 31 December 1906, 17 January 1907.
[10] Ruston Council Minutes, 24 February, 6 May, 3 June 1907.
[11] Bob Fletcher, Local Historian, Personal conversation with author, September 1998.
[12] Tom Collins, UWT Professor, History of Jazz, August 1998.
[13] Bill Baker, Ruston childhood resident, Personal conversation with author, 27 July 1998.
[14] The Slag, May 1944.
[15] Myrtle Johnson, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, 14 November 1998.
[16] The News Tribune, Waiting: Asarco-dependent Ruston facing major change in its lifestyle, 13 October 1984.
[17] Photo, Ruston Senior Gathering, October 1998.
[18] Dan Gallagher, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, March 1998.
[19] Pete Tallman, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, 9 April 1998.
[20] Mary Joyce, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, 1987.
[21] The News Tribune, Sage ‘flipped’ onto council, 1 December 1977.
[22] The News Tribune, Elections loser claims ballot was misplaced, 7 December 1977.
[23] The News Tribune, Smelter Stack Looking Prettier, 20 June 1973.
[24] The News Tribune, Legendary Landmark, 15 January 1993.
[25] The New Tribune, Seattle, Keep Your Protesters: Letters to the Editor, 19 October 1984.
[26] Personal knowledge of author.

Community Jewels

The town of Ruston remains hidden, tucked away at the north end of Tacoma’s waterfront between an old dark tunnel and Point Defiance Park. The tiny town stands, in many ways, as one of the last vestiges of small town Amercia. Surrounded on all sides by the big city, community connections are strong, neighbors know one another and town pride is pervasive. And yet this modest town has been the stage of major battles; big city versus small town, corporate giant versus big government, environmental perfection versus reality.

This small town hertitage is often carried in the memories of the elderly, in the stories they tell, and in the imagination of the young who allow themselves to be transported to a long ago time and place. Such stories can only be protected if told and captured. This paper attempts to preserve a few pieces of Ruston’s heritage, to tell a small number of stories gleaned from the old and wise among us and the documents they have left behind.

Ruston’s legacy is that of the Industrial Revolution, of man’s pride in taming the earth and using its riches to enhance his own life. It was that force that laid the seed for the community when Tacoma business leaders built a smelter on Commencement Bay. In its 100 years of existence, this small town has faced societal changes that devastated its economic base and encountered conflicts within and without its borders. Yet it has survived with a unique identity that only struggle and longevity can produce.

Before European settlers reached this shore, other people likely gathered around ancient campfires on Ruston beaches to tell their own stories. What visitors walked the original hillside in centuries past? History has lost such details, but clearly the neighborhood was known to the original native population. A large village existed at the entrance to Gig Harbor that appeared to have been founded by the Puyallup tribe on Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma.[1] The Ruston shoreline surely saw frequent trips between these two groups. The area was called “Cho-chu-chluth” for the maple trees that grew in the area..[2] The Puyallups used the beach for clam harvesting, and early maps refer to the entire shoreline from Point Defiance to Old Tacoma as the “Salmon Banks”.[3]

During Tacoma’s industrial boom years in the late nineteenth century, several local businessmen formed the Tacoma Milling & Smelting Company and began the process of building a lead smelter. In 1888, the group elected a wealthy St. Paul native, Dennis Ryan, as president and construction began. The first 50 employees [4] fired up the furnace on September 12, 1889 and began melting metal ores that were easily shipped by water and rail.[5] Lumber was scavenged from driftwood as much as possible, and the shoreline began to expand as the smelting byproduct of slag was poured into the bay.[6]

Housing sprang up quickly, nestled on the hillside just outside the smelter gate. The first were boarding homes for the single men who worked at the smelter. As a typical turn-of-the century mill town, the hillside also held a barber and many taverns.[7] In time, single family homes were added to accommodate married families The first was built by Marco Budinich around 1890.[8] The fledgling community considered incorporating as Swansea that same year, so named to mirror the industrial success of Swansea, Wales. But when given assurances that the larger city of Tacoma would not annex them, the idea was dropped.[9] The area was simply referred to as Smelter, or Smelterville for the next decade.

The drive for independence took shape as the smelter changed hands. Ryan was not able to make a profit, and sold the business to the manager W.R. Rust within a year. Rust added the smelting of copper, and business grew. The Guggenheim brothers bought the business in 1905 and added it to their American Smelting Company.[10] Rust continued on as manager and lead the drive to incorporate the small town in 1906, going so far as to direct smelter lawyers to draw up the petition for signatures to begin the process.[11] In the months following, meetings were held for citizens to voice their opinion. Women, who had not yet achieved the right to vote, were even invited to attend the debates.[12] The local citizens named their new town Ruston in Rust’s honor when they officially incorporated on Oct. 22, 1906.

With independence secured, November 1906 saw 121 voters register for the first municipal election. The room over Hank’s Store was designated as the official polling place.[13] Among those early citizens, seven different boarding houses were listed as residences, ranging from Smith’s Store to Point Defiance Hotel. Ohio boasted the most American-born citizens, with one voter native to Washington. Fifty-one were of foreign birth, mostly from Sweden and Norway. The majority worked at the smelter (64), with another 33 in related fields such as laborer, craneman, and foreman.[14]

The first council meeting for the young town was held on Nov. 12, 1906 in the school on the bluff overlooking the smelter. Mayor Austen presided with five new council members. G. H. Wallace was appointed clerk and L. Martin was chosen as marshal. These same officials won their seat in that first election on Dec. 7, 1906.

Those early months included the usual duties of the times. For example, the council instructed the “chairman of the streets and alleys committee to notify Mr. Barney Rhodeseid that he must not tear boards off of the railing on 51st Street for the purpose of getting to his chicken coop, but the council would allow him to put in a small gate which they think will be sufficient.”[15] Ordinance #14 addressed similar issues; “It shall be unlawful for any cow, cattle, horse, mule, goat, sheep, run at large between the hours of 8 am and 5 p.m.”[16] It is unclear if animals could run at night as they pleased.

In other business, The Ruston Review was designated as the official paper for the Town, with a bill paid on Dec. 31, 1906. No current resident can recall seeing this paper, and it may be that this vital record is gone forever. In keeping with the industrial nature of the community, the first three business licenses to be issued were for saloons.[17]

Major shifts in American culture are illustrated in Ordinance #10, which declared the following to be disorderly persons: “all female persons who loiter in or about saloons or other places where intoxicating liquors are sold or disposed of, making a business of drinking with men and soliciting men to purchase and drink intoxicating liquor.” Yet some concepts are reborn today. Ordinance #13 made it “unlawful for a child under 16 years of age to be upon the public streets or highways of the Town of Ruston after certain hours of the evening.”

Two years after incorporating, the local newspaper ran a headline declaring, “Ruston More Than Doubles Population and Assessed Valuation in 18 Months”. The article notes that residents had no access to Tacoma “but over a poor, ill-kept wagon road”. Most traveled to and from by boat.[18] The town boasted 125 pupils in the Ruston School, a YMCA clubhouse complete with gym, bowling alleys, pool tables and reading rooms for the smelter men, and a Town Hall with a jail cell in the basement. The mayor, Ed Austen, had recently been replaced by Ed Daley.[19]

The early criminal docket also reveals a distant time. On Jan. 12, 1912 a man was sentenced to 33 days for “giving intoxicating liquor to a habitual drunkard.” In April, five days of jail time for disorderly conduct were suspended for two men when they volunteered to leave town. Someone was given a $1 fine for “insulting and using profane language in public.”[20]

By 1920, the town was well established. The Smelter Club was bustling with indoor baseball games in the winter and dances every weekend. Warm weather saw baseball games on the smelter grounds between the refinery buildings. A new hotel was nearing completion, and furnanceman Wes Newman, who had just completed a correspondence course in detecting, was appointed as Ruston’s new Marshall. Prohibition brought complaints from residents, some of whom could not see the point in taking vacation without liquor.[21]

By 1921, the “crime wave” from Tacoma had reached Ruston, with several burglaries reported early in the year. Locks were a luxury in those days, so Jimmie Debray kept his doors blocked. When someone tried to break into his home, all they did was scare away his poor calf, who ran off dragging a large piece of wood. The calf was recovered the next day, but the wood was too heavy to carry and left in the brush.[22]

There are few residents that can boast of being born and bred within the town borders. One such treasure was Owen Gallagher, who died in 1996 at 83 years young. Owen told of two distinct neighborhoods that had developed by his childhood. Irish immigrants had settled at the north end of town, while a large Croatian population had grown up to the south. Each had their own drinking establishments and fights were common on weekends.[23]

A third generation jewel is Pete Tallman. He recalls that one of the major events for the town was the opening of the bridge on 51st Street in 1941. The bridge replaced a wooden structure and spans the gulch over the Nelson Bennett train tunnel, which had been completed in 1914.[24] The concrete bridge connects the two sides of town and bears a plaque that reads “For a Unified Community.” Pete also told of a common initiation ceremony from his teenage years; that of walking on the busy rail line below the bridge.[25] Teenager’s continue the practice today. Local police are often called to chase them from under the bridge or out of the tunnel.[26] The bridge is on the national historical register and stands closed today, awaiting funds for structural upgrades.

As with Tacoma, World War II was a busy time for Ruston. The council meetings were held in the school gym and each meeting included time to put the names of any young men who were fighting on a display board, adding a star if they were killed in action. That display is still at the town hall today. Neighboring Point Defiance Park and Funland Amusement area were busy recreation destinations for soldiers from Fort Lewis. There were even soldiers and crash boats, used to respond to military plane crashes in the water, permanently stationed at the park during the war.[27] In the interest of national defense, the federal government took over operation of the smelter for a time.[28] By this time, the copper company was named American Smelting and Refining Company, or Asarco.

Ruston had at least one Japanese family that was interned during the war. They operated a laundry on Winnifred Street. The family asked Georgeanne Gallagher to store their belongings in her basement, but her mother had advised against taking on the responsibility. The family apparently did not return after the war.[29]

Ruston’s municipal staff has shown longevity in their positions. Ford Downie served as judge and clerk for 40 years.[30] In 1964, Loretta Prettyman took over as clerk and stayed until 1990.[31] Even though the town elected positions are volunteer, the same principle of longevity has held true for many faithful citizens like Gallager, who served as councilmember and mayor for 32 years, and Mary Joyce, another born and bred treasure, who still holds a council seat after more than 25 years.[32] Incidentally, Owen was of Irish decent and, although they remained friends, was often at political odds over the years with Mary, of Croatian decent.

One of Ruston’s oldest surviving businesses is Ruston Market. The family market began with a bakery near the first school building on Shirley Street. A fire in 1917 burned the entire block and the market moved to its current location at N. 51st and Winnifred Streets. [33] The school was rebuilt and expanded to include the entire block on Shirley Street.

Ruston has always fiercely held to its independence, even though Tacoma had grown to surround it by mid-century. One threat to the smaller town’s identity arose in 1966 when the state cut off special aid to Ruston school because it was no longer considered “remote and necessary”.[34] The school was eventually incorporated into the Tacoma School District, who shut its doors in 1985. There is hope that Asarco will be able to upgrade the building and use it for office space during the environmental clean up of the smelter site.[35]

On the other side of town, the Unicorn Tavern endures as another long-standing Ruston icon. Known as “The Brick” for most of its years due to its brick construction, the business served as a watering hole for smelter workers for many decades. Just down the street, the Krillich Brothers Grocery operated for much of the century. The building still stands, used as living space now, but its story is symbolic of Ruston’s journey.

George was the first Krillich to arrive in Ruston in 1902. He set up a small grocery and eventually brought his wife and brothers from Yugoslavia. He and his three brothers built a boarding house and grocery store upon returning. It opened in 1912. When George died just six years later, his family carried on the business.[36]

Each morning, smelter men would gather in the basement dining room of the store to eat a meal and gather lunch before heading off to work. English as well as native Eastern European tongues were spoken. During the day, the local housewives would visit the grocery on the main floor. The men would gather again on their way home, sometimes a bit unsteady after a respite at The Brick. Several would head upstairs to bed in the cots provided in the boarding section of the building, while others would head home to families housed close by.

The 1950’s brought the use of automobiles and forever changed the face of American culture. No longer were small, local stores needed within walking distance. Krillich Brother’s Grocery closed and laid dormant for three decades. The only activity for the store was in 1971 when the town government ordered the building to be upgraded or demolished.[37] The owner remodeled and sold it in 1985. The doors were opened once again, this time to auction off the contents of the building. Along with groceries still sporting 30-year-old price tags, an antique bean counter and other pieces of history, the dining table that has served so many was sold.[38]

Many of the Krillich family remained close by. George’s son Charlie was born in 1908. At age 70, his routine included a stop each morning at The Brick to cash a check and buy candy, then he wandered the streets of Ruston, passing out treats to local children. His brother Ned was on the Metropolitan Park Board for a time.[39] Mary Joyce is the daughter of one of the Krillich brothers, and spent much of her childhood delivering groceries for the family business.[40]

Politics has always been tumultuous in this little town, perhaps because it is so small. A tiny community compared to its neighbor Tacoma, Ruston enjoys a sense of a close-knit community, where neighbors know and care for each other. But personalities run strong in such a setting, often played out on the stage of the local political scene. One such stormy period was in 1971. John Krillich, a Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner,[41] was appointed chairman of a citizens committee to evaluate the effectiveness of the mayor and town government. Two councilmembers had just resigned from the planning commission and the search was on for a new building inspector.[42]

In 1978, the mayor took the unusual step of appointing the police chief as head of the volunteer fire department. Five firemen resigned, including the fire chief.[43] Doris Sage had just won her council seat with a coin toss after a tie vote with Leo Wingard.[44] Leo, a second generation gem, would continue to battle the town in various ways until he died at 90 years old in 1997. Although not related to town politics, Ruston has seen the violent death of two of its mayors in recent years. Mayor Pete Brudevold was murdered in 1988 and Mayor Phil Parker committed suicide in 1995.[45]

Space does not permit an adequate discussion in this writing, but no story of Ruston would be complete without a brief look at the smelter and its impact on the town. Decades of worry and forecasts of doom for Ruston culminated with the closure of the Asarco plant in 1985. The town saw its annual tax revenue from Asarco drop from $340,000 to $12,000 in 1987,[46] as well as the termination of the final 500 employees. The volunteer fire department was disbanded and the police force cut.[47]

Many predicted that such an event would destroy the small town and force annexation to Tacoma. But stubbornness and love for the community has kept the municipal offices open somehow. By 1993, the giant smelter smokestack was imploded, and that autumn a unique public planning process was begun. The year-long series of workshops brought into focus the dream of reuse for the waterfront property. Those plans culminated in agreements between the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Asarco and the local municipalities in 1997.[48]

Things are starting to improve for this tiny community now. Along with the plans for the smelter property, Asarco has replaced most of the yards in Ruston to remove trace levels of arsenic and lead left in the dirt from plant emissions.[49] Many residents hope for a new image without the stigma of EPA “contamination” issues haunting them.[50] And the fire department was reactivated in 1986.[51]

Ruston’s historical crown has many gems with its second generation citizens. As the third and fourth generations add jewels to the crown, the town will do well to cherish the memories of its elders and hold fast to their wisdom. With the tremendous changes to the town’s fabric underway, the community must gather the stories and record their collective past. Only then can the future be built on a solid, strong foundation for the many generations to come.


Department of Economic Development Block Grant Application, Town of Ruston, 1987.

Dupuis, Carl. Tacoma Smelter, Conservation Corps Writing Project, 1937.

Environmental Protection Agency Fact Sheet, July 1993.

Morgan, Murray. Puget’s Sound. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1979.

Ruston Market & Deli Menu, 1998.

Smith, Marian. The Puyallup-Nisqually. New York: AMS Press, 1935.

Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 1890-June 1908.

Tacoma News Tribune, July 1971-January 1997.

Tacoma Smelter News, September 1920, January 1921.

The Tacoma Sunday News Tribune And Ledger, 17 June 1956.

Town of Ruston Council Meeting Minutes, 1906-1997.

Town of Ruston Criminal Docket, 1912.

Town of Ruston Ordinance Book Number 1.

Town of Ruston Voter Book 1 and 2, 1906.

[1] Marian W. Smith, The Puyallup-Nisqually (New York: AMS Press, 1935), 11.
[2] Blaine Johnson, “There was a boom in Ruston’s real estate roots,” Tacoma News Tribune, 13 February 1994.
[3] Cheryl Miller, Local Historian, Personal Interview, 5 November , 1997.
[4] Don Duncan, “Ruston’s 759 Make It Little City Within a City,” The Tacoma Sunday News Tribune And Ledger, 17 June 1956.
[5] Carl Dupuis, Tacoma Smelter, Conservation Corps Writing Project, 21 January 1937.
[6] “Who’s Who In The Smelter: Charlie Harry,” Tacoma Smelter News, January 1921.
[7] Caroline Kellogg, “Time Machine: Ruston: memorial to a gifted man with a vision,” The News Tribune, 9 January 1977.
[8] “Ruston More Than Doubles Population and Assessed Valuation in 18 Months,” Tacoma Daily Ledger,
14 June 1908.
[9] “No Town of Swansea,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, 12 February 1890.
[10] Carl Dupuis, Ibid.
[11] “Incorporate a New Town,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, 12 August 1906.
[12] “Smelter Citizens Plan Big Meeting,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, 2 September 1906.
[13] Town of Ruston Council Meeting Minutes, 12 November 1906.
[14] Voter Books 1 and 2: Town of Ruston, 1906.
[15] Ruston Town Council Meeting Minutes, 17 December 1906.
[16] Ordinance Book Number 1: Town of Ruston.
[17] Ruston Town Council Meeting Minutes, 26 November 1906.
[18] “Sampling Department” Tacoma Smelter News, September 1920.
[19] “Ruston More Than Doubles Population and Assessed Valuation in 18 Months,” Ibid.
[20] Criminal Docket: Town of Ruston, 1912.
[21] “Main Office, Casting House Notes, Refinery Notes, Power House,” Tacoma Smelter News,
September 1920.
[22] “Smelting Department,” Tacoma Smelter News, January 1921.
[23] Owen Gallagher, Former Ruston Mayor, Personal Conversation, 4 July 1995.
[24] Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound, (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1979), 312.
[25] Pete Tallman, Ruston Resident, Personal Interview, 2 February 1998.
[26] Kim Wheeler, Ruston Police Chief, Personal Conversations, 1994-98.
[27] Tallman, Ibid.
[28] Thomas Aldrich, Asarco Site Manager, Personal Conversation, 1995.
[29] Georgeanne Gallager, Ruston Resident, Personal Conversation, 7 March 1998.
[30] “Ruston Panel Fills Positions, Lauds Downie,” The New Tribune, 4 June 1964.
[31] Verna Holbrook, Town of Ruston Deputy Clerk, Personal Interview, 9 March 1998.
[32] Holbrook, Ibid.
[33] “A Little History,” Ruston Market & Deli Menu, 1998.
[34] Ray Ruppert, “Tiny Ruston Facing New Threat Against Its Independent Status,” The News Tribune,
29 January 1966.
[35] Town of Ruston Meeting Minutes, November 1997.
[36] Bob Lane, “Turing pages: 63 years of Ruston history goes on auction block,” Tacoma News Tribune,
2 November 1985.
[37] Bob Lane, “Ruston May Raze Landmark,” Tacoma News Tribune, 6 July 1971.
[38] Bob Lane, 2 November 1985, Ibid.
[39] Howard Ferguson, “Just About People: Charlie’s the candy man for the children of Ruston,” Tacoma News Tribune, 21 September 1978.
[40] Mary K. Joyce, Ruston Councilmember, Personal Conversation, 1991.
[41] Susan Gordon, “Waiting: Asarco-dependent Ruston facing major change in its lifestyle,” Tacoma News Tribune, 13 October 1984.
[42] Bob Lane, “Ruston Mayor Hears Complaints, Rejects Use of Hall for Hearings,” Tacoma News Tribune, 20 July 1978.
[43] Churchill, “Who’s Boss? Ruston firemen resign,” Tacoma News Tribune, 11 October 1978.
[44] Richard Sypher, “Contested Ruston vote faces hearing debate,” The News Tribune, 16 January 1978.
[45] Personal Experience, 1986-97.
[46] Department of Economic Development Block Grant Application, Town of Ruston, 1987.
[47] Dan Vopel, “Ruston firefighters hang up the hose,” The News Tribune, 24 March 1985.
[48] Barbara Clements, “Old Asarco site is destined for business park and green belts,” The News Tribune,
9 January 1997.
[49] Environmental Protection Agency Fact Sheet, June 21, 1993.
[50] Beth Torbet, Ruston Market, Personal Conversation, 1994.
[51] Jim Pickett, Former Ruston Firefighter, Personal Conversation, 8 March 1998.