Bill Virgin: Consider possible hazards, as well as optimistic future, in Tacoma strategic plans

July 13, 2014 

Prognostication is a tough business, even when dealing with a limited set of potential outcomes, such as in politics (“Dewey defeats Truman”) or sports (the Denver Broncos, you might recall, were teensy favorites over the Seattle Seahawks in the most recent Super Bowl).

When you’re trying to guess a future with not just nearly unlimited outcomes but a similar total of influencing factors — good luck with that.

But people persist in trying to trying to figure out what’s next, and not without valid motivation. Guessing right could mean substantial reward, or at least the absence of the substantial punishment that comes with doing nothing or guessing wrong. You might even be able to nudge the outcome a little more favorably in your direction.

That’s a useful frame of reference to keep in mind in considering the city of Tacoma’s latest exercise in strategic planning, known as Tacoma 2025.

“The strategic plan is intended to set the course and guide where the city of Tacoma (as both a local government organization and a community) is going over the next 10 years, and to help the city direct its efforts and resources toward a clearly defined vision for its future that reflects community desires, and current and future trends, and bolsters the city’s unique position within the region,” says the introduction to Tacoma 2025 on a website describing the effort (tacoma2025.com). Community involvement is a major element of Tacoma 2025; the website includes a comments section, and there’s a community meeting planned for July 30 at the convention center.

Planning and predicting are integrally connected; there’s no point to making plans if you’re not also making assumptions about what you’re trying to accomplish and what it will take to get there. As it happens, planning is not that tough – as long as you stick to the vaguest, most generic of objectives (“We’re going to make this place a great place to live”) or the most detailed and specific of ideas (“We’re going to repair this many feet of crumbling sidewalk on this specific block on this exact date”).

It’s in that vast area in between — drafting specific plans to achieve those lofty and vague goals, and pulling all those small, specific projects into some sort of coherent strategy — where the difficult work lies.

It’s even more difficult when contemplating the next 10 years in “economic vibrancy and employment,” one of seven focus areas for Tacoma 2025.

Let’s draw on two resources to illustrate. One is a list of topics of business and economic columns written by your columnist in 2004 and printed, it should be added, in a newspaper that is no longer in business. (Did we see that one coming? Not in the manner in which it occurred, we didn’t.)

We find references to Washington Mutual (gone), the 7E7 (renamed the 787), and to some issues that are still on the table, such as outsourcing, or the interstate competition to offer tax breaks to companies considering where to build new plants or offices.

What don’t we find? Predictions of revolutionary changes in the economy, like the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, or the domestic oil-and-gas production boom. Just those two events turned plans made in 2004 for the next 10 years into so much waste paper, because they rendered underlying assumptions and predictions about business trends and economic conditions utterly invalid.

People around here were thinking about the future in 2004, in the form of “Tacoma Tomorrow,” a strategic plan for 2005-2010 drafted by the mayor and council.

That plan’s section on the economy contains many elements likely to wind up in whatever results from Tacoma 2025, such as the importance of the port and the military bases.

While the 2004 plan contains lots of high-level verbiage as to goals (“a diverse regional economy that produces livable wage jobs, retains wealth and increases prosperity, provides opportunities for emerging and existing businesses to flourish, sustains and increases governmental revenues, and creates a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs”), it’s remarkably light on details about how that might be achieved.

And it’s devoid of discussion about what might happen should things go horribly wrong — should, for example, the town’s signature employer decide to leave (Russell) or the housing construction and finance markets crater, pulling the rest of the economy in with it.

The writers of Tacoma 2025 — and that includes you, members of the public — need to keep that in mind while going through this latest exercise in strategizing and planning. Just the degree of near-term uncertainty about those two big economic drivers — Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the port — is enough to imperil the value of plans before the ink on them is dry, never mind how much the surprises and unforeseen shifts of the next 10 years might contradict a plan written in 2014 about Tacoma in 2025.

So should everyone give up now? Not bother at all with Tacoma 2025? Not at all. But in addition to the fun questions everyone likes to consider in planning — “what can we do to make our community better?” — those participating should consider the less fun, more ominous questions like “what ugliness looms out there to make it worse?” and start planning for that as well.

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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