Hey Tacoma — sit up, brush the crumbs off your shirt, look sharp.
You’re getting noticed. Again.
If you’ve been around these parts long enough, you know the drill. Every half-decade or so, stories start popping up in regional media in which writers discover this hitherto little-known place between the two outposts of civilizations and culture (Seattle and Portland). Such missives require at least one use of the phrase “City of Destiny” and at least one reference to the aroma of Tacoma (usually, and thankfully, to remark on how it’s not there anymore).
The inspiration can be a sporting event, such as the recently concluded golf tournament, or some addition to the city’s attractions such as the car museum, or maybe someone just got curious about that empty space on the map, but the tone is usually along the lines of, “Hey, this place isn’t half bad.”
We’re seeing signs of another such outbreak, with stories in both the Seattle Times and the Puget Sound Business Journal discussing the re-emergence of another phenomenon we’ve seen before — the migration of people from Seattle to Tacoma in search of the kind of housing they want at a price they can afford.
Not that you’d know it from the advocates of the “pack ‘em tight and high” model of urban planning, but there are still some people who cling to the idea of owning a single-family detached home in a reasonably quiet, decent neighborhood. Such neighborhoods are still plentiful in Seattle and immediate surroundings, but if you’re not there already, good luck trying to buy into one, even on a tech-industry salary.
The alternative is to go looking elsewhere, and for some that means as far south as Tacoma. (Interestingly, a recent Seattle Weekly story documented migration in the other direction — to Bellingham). The attraction is obvious — the median price of a closed sale of a single-family residence (excluding condos) in June in Seattle was $500,000, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
For Pierce County? Try $257,000.
That’s up 9.4 percent from a year ago, a price appreciation figure that may be good short-term news for sellers but borders on the overheated and unhealthy for the long term. Still, the purchase price is much more palatable for buyers, and the more of them that flock south, the faster and farther word will spread. That means more people to shop at local businesses and support local cultural institutions (which, newly arrived residents may be shocked to learn,exist even in midsize towns and suburbs).
But that, when it comes to the matter of economic development for Tacoma, is half the story.
Many of those new Tacomans and Pierce Countians, having just arrived, will immediately turn around and make the daily commute to Seattle for work. Your columnist has some personal experience with that, having once made the Tacoma-to-Seattle commute. But that was in ancient times, pre-Amazon hiring boom. It was time-consuming and unfun then — try the southbound Interstate 5 Southcenter hill on a Friday evening — and it’s not likely to be much more fun now.
Options have improved, such as the Sounder commuter train. But that’s still an hour-plus each way, not counting the time getting to and from stations, workplace and home. Driving? Enjoy the commute into a city whose leaders loathe the automobile and where parking rates may soon overtake those mortgage payments you can’t afford.
At some point those new arrivals will decide they’d like to dump the time, cost and hassle of that long commute and find employment much closer to home.
The big question: Will there be employers of sufficient size, status and number to accommodate them?
The big answer: Not until there’s a shift in prevailing attitudes among many employers, especially those in the tech industry, or who think they are or want to be.
That attitude says that workers only want to work in an urban setting among others of their vocation, so companies who want to recruit those workers have to be there, no matter how much they have to pay for workplace real estate or how much employees have to pay to live nearby.
That line of thinking helps to explain why Weyerhaeuser, a forest products company, is ditching Federal Way for Pioneer Square. It’s also why Expedia, an online travel agency, is moving from Bellevue (admittedly no commuting picnic either, especially if you have to deal with 405) to the Elliott Bay waterfront.
Changing that attitude among corporate decision-makers will be a lot tougher than changing the perception among workers and homebuyers that you’re nowhere if you’re not somewhere between Fremont/Ballard and Georgetown. But it’s not impossible — attitudes do change. Eventually a perceptive executive will catch on to the pool of employees available and make the daring decision to relocate to an untrendy wilderness settlement like Tacoma. And there’s the start of your next trend.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.