Tacoma must fight to save its future

Contributing writerNovember 3, 2012 

Amid all the uproar over DaVita’s plan to shift 350 workers from downtown Tacoma to Federal Way, it’s instructive to remember why we have downtowns full of office towers to be filled in the first place.

The reason is because... um ... why exactly do we have them? Because downtowns are regional centers of commerce? That’s a dubious premise in modern America, and certainly for downtown Tacoma.

At one time, everything – banking, retailing, law, entertainment and culture, health care, even manufacturing, took place in American downtowns. But that time was a very long time ago.

Manufacturing moved out. Retailing followed, leaving a few brave souls to soldier on in the hope that retailers and shoppers would someday return.

The banking industry once could be counted upon to consume plentiful quantities of office space. Pacific Avenue was lined with headquarters and regional offices of banks. But consolidation and moving back-office operations to more efficient and less expensive facilities in office parks combined to thin the ranks of banks and reduce the call for downtown space from those that remained.

Health care? If you count the Hilltop as a part of downtown, then you can make the argument that health care is an important part of the mix. If not, though, anyone with some affiliation with the hospitals will tend to gravitate there, not to space at the bottom of the hill. So why is DaVita, a health care company, going out to Federal Way? Other factors are in play, although if DaVita saw some particular advantage for a health care company to be downtown, it would have found a way to accommodate its growth there.

There have been efforts to make high-tech, which tended to grow in suburban office parks, more of an urban factor, as is occurring in Seattle’s South Lake Union and Pioneer Square districts. But as with health care, like tends to locate near like, and Tacoma doesn’t have enough of a tech presence to generate that sort of gravitational pull.

What you’re left with is a mishmash of offices for government, legal and other professional services and a smattering of other stuff including arts, culture, entertainment and education.

Is that enough to make for a sustainable downtown? Tacoma is hardly unique among American cities in its fix, but one of its problems is that it’s located in a part of the country where large cities – Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, B.C. – have managed to maintain viable downtowns. Those are anomalies. For all the perceived and real problems that Tacoma has that led to losses such as Russell and the shift by DaVita – tax policies, parking, local government, the topography of downtown, the city’s image, cheaper real estate elsewhere – perhaps the biggest is trying to keep alive a business model that in many locations no longer works.

But since we’ve got this downtown, and presuming that giving up is not an option, what do we do?

One approach is to continue growing our own. That means government officials, economic development types, civic leaders and real estate owners need to be on the phone to every local business of even modest size or promise, asking “What do you need?”

Another is to do some judicious recruiting, and here we’ll refloat an idea: Get on the phone to every shipping line, every freight forwarder, every logistics company, to tell them they need to have a presence here in the center of international trade (what, we can’t indulge in a little artistic license?).

There may be some other ideas, none of them easy to carry out, and all of them may flop.

Here’s an alternative with a guaranteed outcome: Do nothing, with the result of more defections and departures, and more lamentations about the darkening fate of Tacoma’s downtown.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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