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Native Son Held Tacoma’s Hand Over Rough Spots

January 10, 2007

By Rob Tucker, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

Jan. 10–Erling O. Mork, the first city manager of Tacoma to be born and raised in the city, died Tuesday. He was 72.

Mork, the son of an immigrant Norwegian fisherman, had a vision of what Tacoma could be, so he stayed to serve the city where he was born and pioneered Tacoma’s redevelopment.

“Tacoma has been called ‘The City of Destiny,’ and that is beginning to come true,” he said in 1976, a year after beginning what would be a long tenure as city manager. “It appears our time has come.”

What he said about Tacoma came true over the next 30 years, partly because of his vision and ability to get things done, first as a city leader and then as a force in economic development.

Judy Mork, his wife of 46 years, said he died peacefully at home at 6:11 p.m., surrounded by his family. He had fought cancer for four years, she said.

Family and friends plan a celebration of his life Jan. 24 at the Landmark Convention Center. Details of the celebration have yet to be determined.

Mork saw Tacoma’s possibilities when many didn’t.

“His thing in life was Tacoma,” Judy Mork said. “He loved Tacoma with all his heart. He was born and raised here, and he spent all his life trying to make it better.”

He said once that momentum had drifted from downtown after its retail core moved to the Tacoma Mall in the 1960s.

Downtown became a place with more than its share of boarded-up storefronts. Lower Pacific Avenue teemed with adult bookstores and prostitutes. But Mork sensed Tacoma could rebound.

“This city has many advantages,” he told a News Tribune columnist 36 years ago during a stormy period before he became city manager. “A setting on Puget Sound, a railroad and transportation hub — and with progressive leadership and a sense of unity among the citizens, it can achieve a quality environment.”

Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg said no local leader has done as much as Mork for the city in the past 25 years.

“Just name any project down there,” said Ladenburg, who served on the City Council when Mork was city manager. “His name is on it somewhere.”

Critics once blistered the council for its long-range plan to reclaim a strip of land including an oil-mat road, a rail line and dingy industrial docks. Mork followed through and turned it into Ruston Parkway, with its parks, wide sidewalks, fishing docks and popular restaurants, Ladenburg said.

During Mork’s 14-year administration, he saved Union Station from demolition. Tacoma’s Sheraton Hotel, Bicentennial Pavilion and the Tacoma Financial Center building were constructed — and the Pantages Theater was restored — in part because of his vision, planning and negotiating skills.

Mork’s behind-the-scenes leadership helped with construction of the Tacoma Dome after a positive public vote on a bond issue.

“The trick is to get one thing that leads to something else that leads to something else,” he said in an interview last year.

In downtown Tacoma, a series of “something elses” was made possible by $1 billion in public funds and millions in private dollars: Union Station became a federal courthouse; the University of Washington Tacoma campus was established; and the Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, the Tacoma Convention Center, the Frank Russell Co. building and other structures rose.

Ladenburg said Mork also advised Tacoma leaders in negotiating the Indian Land Claims of 1988 with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. The settlement allowed additional development that secured Tacoma’s container port as one of the largest in the U.S.

After graduating from Washington State University, Mork landed a job as a draftsman in Tacoma’s planning department and worked up through the ranks, finishing a 27-year career in Tacoma city government as city manager.

At City Hall, Mork was known as a quietly efficient administrator, a good listener and problem solver. He was trusted, he communicated well. He worked with talented assistants, including future Tacoma City Managers Jim Walton and Ray Corpuz.

“He was a wonderful mentor,” said Corpuz, now the city manager in Seaside, Calif. “I respected his vision.”

Corpuz said Mork coordinated public-private investment strategies to revive downtown. Mork kept opportunities open that led to redevelopment projects later when Corpuz was city manager, including Thea Foss Waterway.

Mork relaxed by raising rhododendrons behind his North End home, or he and his wife occasionally went to a family cabin north of Seattle.

Walton said Mork never wanted recognition.

“He was never an ‘I’ person,” Walton said. “He didn’t need to be at the front, to be recognized for all this.”

Mork once said his approach to the city manager’s job came from fishing in Alaskan waters when he was a young man. He would spend three months at a time, living on an 80-foot boat with eight other people.

“Living together on the open sea,” he said, “you’d better learn how to roll. There are lots of long hours and a lot of loneliness.”

His Tacoma career wasn’t all flowers and calm seas.

As his city service drew to a close, some council critics complained about his low-profile approach. They said he had good relations with the business community, but they wanted him to reach out more to other groups and residents.

The City Council majority continued to support Mork.

“It’s hard to criticize someone who keeps the trains running on time,” said Councilman Tom Stenger in 1988.

Before his city manager days, Mork once resigned from Tacoma’s administration during a tempestuous period and took a job as a political science professor at Pacific Lutheran University.

But Mork returned as City Manager Bill Donaldson’s assistant, and Donaldson recommended Mork as his successor in 1975.

Former Mayor Mike Parker might have wanted Mork removed in the late 1970s. Both men denied any falling out. Most council members sided with Mork and said Parker, a former state legislator, interfered too much. But Parker and Mork figured out ways to work together.

Mork also replaced four police chiefs amid infighting among department factions.

But when Mork resigned at the end of 1989, he remained a force in local economic development. He was appointed president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board the next year. Local leaders praised his work in attracting Intel to DuPont in 1995.

In many ways, Mork’s vision has been realized: Tacoma has come a long way from its seedy Pacific Avenue strip days. The city’s economic future is more secure.

“We had such a repair job to do,” said Harold Moss, a former city councilman, mayor and chairman of the Pierce County Council. “The decency and calm approach of Erling Mork helped us keep on track.”

Highlights

1934: Born in Tacoma General Hospital.

1953: Graduates from Lincoln High School.

1957: Graduates from Washington State University.

1957: Joins Tacoma city planning department.

1960: Marries his second wife, Judith Ann Carlson. Together, they raise five children, including three from his first marriage.

1961: Leaves Tacoma to become a planner for Santa Clara County, Calif.

1963: Returns to Tacoma city government as a planner.

1968: Becomes assistant to Tacoma City Manager David Rowlands.

1969: Resigns from city government to become director of community projects and assistant professor of political science at Pacific Lutheran University.

1970: Rejoins Tacoma city government as assistant to acting City Manager Marshall McCormick and then City Manager Bill Donaldson.

1975: Named city manager.

1980: Elected president of Washington City Managers’ Association.

1989: Resigns as city manager.

1990: Named president of Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board.

1999: Retires from economic development board.

Rob Tucker: 253-597-8374

rob.tucker@thenewstribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2007, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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