For as long as anybody can remember, Gig Harbor was a hidden jewel that had avoided the anxiety created by a throng of visitors from the big city.
The waterfront stores and eclectic collection of restaurants that populate Pioneer Way in Gig Harbor were a well-kept secret of the community on the far side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the savvy boaters who navigated the shallow entrance to the bay.
The visitors from Seattle and Tacoma eventually began to descend the drivable getaway in 2010, just in time to rescue some of the longtime merchants during the depth of the economic downturn.
“The popularity of Girls Night Out and our Sip and Stroll events helped increase the visibility of Gig Harbor and expand the economic vitality of Gig Harbor,” said Mary DesMarais, executive director of the Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance. “Our Main Street has changed for the better. Community events helped transform Gig Harbor into a destination of choice.”
The one-day street celebrations have grown from Thursday evenings into three-day events that attract people from throughout the Puget Sound and visitors from out of town. DesMarais said she has heard stories about people who plan vacations from as far away as Connecticut and Arizona to attend waterfront celebrations in Gig Harbor.
The revival of Gig Harbor was not done without some hard work by the staff at the Gig Harbor Downtown Waterfront Alliance. The staff has gone on the road over the last 10 years to appeal to boaters by manning booths at boat shows in Seattle and publicizing the waterfront farmers market at markets from Pierce County to Mt. Vernon in Skagit County and on the east side of the Cascades.
“Boaters love farmers markets,” said Josh Sherwin, special projects coordinator for the Alliance. “Gig Harbor has been rated as the No. 1 farmers market in the region in a survey of boaters.”
The unprecedented growth is based on The Main Street approach that DesMarais has adopted from the National Main Street Center. The approach has proven to be a common-sense way to address the variety of issues and problems that face traditional business districts with an emphasis on local ownership with distinctive architecture that create pedestrian-friendly shopping districts.
The Main Street philosophy advocates a return to community self-reliance, local empowerment and the rebuilding of traditional commercial districts. Sherwin said the Gig Harbor waterfront expands the allure of the commercial district to boaters from harbors all along the West Coast.
The Gig Harbor experience has grown to include an Annual Waterfront Block Party that kicks off with an evening of dining and dancing with the Pier to Table dining experience. This summer the waterfront merchants will host a Wine and Food Experience featuring edibles and fine wines from different vendors with each day filled with non-stop entertainment. The entire weekend will feature seafood from local suppliers and produce from farms in Pierce County. The Experience is slated to run from Friday, July 27, through Sunday, July 29. The weekend kicks off with an evening of dining and dancing with the Pier to Table. The popular event will include three opportunities to enjoy all the best of the region’s wines, spirits and hometown brewed beers and ales.
The Gig Harbor charm has spread itself to Sundays as well, with restaurants featuring Sunday brunches that range from laid-back casual to elegant champagne dining experiences.
The number of people walking between shops and eating in the waterfront restaurants jumped from 200 to 250 to “at least 2,000” almost overnight, according to Sherwin.
“People actually look forward to our annual events and plan their vacations around them,” DesMarais said. “It was not uncommon to hear first-time visitors ask, ‘Who knew this was here?’ The secret was out.”
DesMarais said merchants are reluctant to share the actual percentage of how much their businesses have grown over the past decade but have indicated that retail sales over a busy weekend have topped $150,000. That number does not include meals and drinks served at restaurants and taverns.
The growth in visitors has not been limited to community events. DesMarais said some retailers are so busy on crowded weekends that customers make the conscience decision to come back so they are able to shop at their own pace.
“That tells me our vision for economic growth is working,” she said with a smile. “The rare vacancy in a storefront is now filled almost immediately. Empty does not stay empty for very long.”
As an example, a large grocery store that left when its lease expired was replaced by a collection of small vendors who turned the empty space into a thriving merchant place.
“The mission of the Alliance was to increase the exposure of Gig Harbor beyond our loyal base,” said Sherwin. “We’ve been successful at getting the cash registers at stores and restaurants to ring a sweet tune.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California and has received acclamation for his work in the areas of sustainable energy and the insurance industry. He is the author of two books that document colorful periods of history in Washington.