I haven’t been inside the LeMay-America’s Car Museum yet, though I’m looking forward to it.
I think I’ll wait a few weeks, until the crowds get smaller and my daughters get back from school.
So this isn’t about what it looks like, how it feels, what the highlights are. We’ve had plenty of that in the paper and on our website. I’m sure it is plenty nice, appealing to motorheads and history junkies, as well as to those looking for a nostalgia trip.
From the outside I see now that it was a good decision to move the museum site from the Tacoma Dome’s lower parking lot to higher ground. From there it is more visible from the freeway and gives visitors a view of downtown and the bay that would not have been as striking from the lower perch.
And while the building itself is entertaining to the eye, the most impressive piece of the design might be the grass-covered show field at its shoulder. Funny how “empty” space can have such an impact on the built environment. Keep that in mind as the city decides how to use the open space around the old Prairie Line tracks in the heart of downtown.
Absorbing the museum’s physical stature triggers thoughts of what institutions like LeMay (and I’m sticking with that shorter name from now on) do for a community.
Tacoma, perhaps more than most second cities, is susceptible to the Next Big Thing. We are told that if only we land that university campus, that art museum, that light rail line, that tech company, that fiber-optic network, everything will get better.
Those are pretty high expectations for any assemblage of bricks and steel, even those that cost tens of millions of dollars.
But just because they don’t make everything all better doesn’t mean they don’t make things incrementally better. They do.
A real city needs a vibrant core. Tacoma’s core remains a work in progress, but it is better because of the University of Washington, because of the restored Union Station, because of the history museum, because of the reclaimed Foss Waterway.
Tacoma 2012 is more usable than Tacoma 1992, and especially Tacoma 1972.
Way too much of the change has resulted from public dollars, not private dollars. That’s a continuing problem. LeMay, while not totally private, is at least more so than most Big Things.
Tacoma, perhaps more than most second cities, is susceptible to flattery. We are so used to being the butt of jokes that when folks come to town bearing compliments, we swoon. And nothing draws compliments like the opening of an institution like LeMay.
Forget that they are often backhanded. (“This may be the time to stop teasing Tacoma,” noted The Seattle Times.) We are still happy to hear them.
It makes us feel better, but does it make us more prosperous, as often promised? I don’t believe feasibility studies, with their often overstated estimates of tourist spending and tax revenue.
Be assured that LeMay will bring in some outside dollars, but it won’t allow the City Council to cut taxes and balance its budget. It might let the museum stay in the black, and it might let the city and state rationalize the public investment in the project. Or, it might not.
Tacoma, perhaps more than most second cities, is susceptible to a need to be considered “world class.” The irony, of course, is that people and places and things that are world class don’t have to tell everyone they are world class.
Still, it helps locals make the case when they can point to “world class” institutions like LeMay that may not be world class but at least attract the interest of people who live around the world.
Former Mayor Brian Ebersole has often said that a city like Tacoma should always be working on a big project, mostly for the way it unites the community and gives it a goal. Yet due to exhaustion and the recession, five years have passed since the completion of the last project.
As it opens, Tacoma celebrates the LeMay museum for its physical stature in the cityscape and its potential economic impact.
But the real effect of this latest Big Thing may be on the community’s email@example.com