Never one to require praise or seek attention for his work, Gary Brackett, business and political manager at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, will retire Jan. 31 after nearly 37 years.
A child of Lubbock, Texas, Brackett received a business degree from Texas Tech and later earned an MBA from the University of Washington. A father of three, Brackett has seen Tacoma grow away from the sleepy and aromatic days of the late 1970s and enter a period of commercial and cultural expansion.
Brackett spoke with The News Tribune just as the old year ended and a new year was about to begin.
Q. What did you find when you started work in Tacoma in 1979?
A. The chamber wanted to establish an economic database. Nobody had put a lot of it together. We would share it with businesses and prospective businesses. At the time, there wasn’t much of a business retention effort. There was no real outreach for economic development. At that time we still had retail downtown. I thought it was a viable downtown.
Q. Thinking of economic development, what were the biggest drivers when you arrived?
A. The single biggest driver for change has been the Port of Tacoma. For a long time, it was the only thing that was happening.
Q. What’s been one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about how to foster progress?
A. People did and still do look for one thing — if we only do this, then everything will be easy and we’re on our way. It was like that with the Tacoma Dome. But you have to keep looking at the next thing. You can’t stop. You can’t coast. Somebody has to make it happen.
Q. But the Dome did make a difference, didn’t it?
A. It’s still making a difference. It has been a positive force. We’ve come a long way in the hospitality industry. You just need to keep at it. The convention center is another one, and Sound Transit serving Pierce County.
Q. Tacoma has seen a number of industries prosper then fade. How can we keep a momentum of growth?
A. We continue to grow our own, and we’re in the middle of growing the next generation of businesses here. If you’re really going to get ahead, you’re going to have to grow your own.
Q. You came with fresh eyes nearly 40 years ago. What have you learned that natives might not realize?
A. A lot of people take the county for granted. They don’t know how nice it is. We cast covetous eyes to Seattle, but I think Seattle would be just as glad to have a little less just like we would be fine with having a little more. I haven’t been everywhere in the world, but I still feel that there’s a lot more equality and opportunity here. I think we’re a lot better off than we might realize. (People who have been away) are always amazed at what our community has become.
Q. What’s the biggest success you’ve been involved with at the chamber?
A. In economic terms, I helped the economic development staff person at the Port of Tacoma working to bring SeaLand to Tacoma. I think the attitude then was (that SeaLand) wanted to get a better price from Seattle. I helped make the case, and we won. ‘We’ won. I’ve almost never done anything by myself.
Q. Anything else on the list?
A. I really do like the PCI (Pierce County Index) report. It’s a tool that almost no other community has. Usually you get leading lights in the community to discuss the future. This one is quantified. It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s become a tool for local business. It points to some challenges we need to be addressing. The first one came on a single fold with a cover and credits. In 2016 it will be 28 pages. In 28 years it has become a tool that business people and governments should be using for their own management and strategic planning.
Q. Over the years you’ve seen successes, but also challenges. There was a time, a few years back, when there was a scandal of sorts and a lawsuit alleging a hostile workplace. You weren’t involved, but you were working there at the time.
A. That was probably the saddest time at the chamber. I worked in the same place. It was a sad time for me. It took new leadership that could make the chamber what it could be again.
Q. So what makes a good chamber?
A. Chambers are going to be defined by what the business community wants them to be — an advocate for the business community, and to help businesses succeed (whether with) workforce or everything from education to roads to tax policy. They need an advocate. If they don’t stand up for themselves, no one else will.
Q. You’ve seen a lot of businesses succeed, and also fail. You know what it takes to succeed, and you’ve met successful businesspeople. So have you ever considered starting a business of your own?
A. I am not enough of a visionary or a risk-taker to start my own business.
Q. So what do you plan to do after you retire?
A. I’m already a volunteer at LeMay — America’s Car Museum and at the LeMay Family Foundation. I like hot rods and muscle cars.
Q. What was the best car you ever owned? Your favorite?
A. A 1966 Chevelle 396.
Q. Beyond cars, what are your plans?
A. I serve on the Pierce County Flood Control Zone Advisory Committee. When my boys were young, I was active in Boy Scouts. I’ve always wanted to learn how to sail. There’s lots of opportunities out there for fun things. I’m not going to go into consulting, I’m not looking for a job, and I’m not going to run for office.
Q. Are you optimistic about the future of Tacoma and Pierce County?
A. I’m not a real fan of potential. I’m more interested in actualization. I’m tired of Tacoma having potential. There are a lot of things happening. There are a lot of things coming together. But again, no coasting, no stopping.
Q. Any changes you’d like to see?
A. There are not enough entrepreneurs in town. We have to help them. That’s the future of our community. Otherwise, we will always be a suburb. I think we have the leadership who can develop the leadership. Yes, we have the leaders who can make this a better place to live, but it’s a continual process. It’s not a ‘me’ job, it’s an ‘us’ job. It’s not something you can do alone.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535