Yes, downtown Tacoma will miss Polar Plaza, as The News Tribune Editorial Board said in a recent editorial.
Of course, I still miss The Hiawatha — the miniature passenger train that used to transport us all the way from the toy department at Rhodes department store to the North Pole, then back to the toy department again.
I miss chocolate sodas at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. And I really, really miss the ornate brass and mother-of-pearl elevator call buttons that used to grace the Medical Arts building (now Municipal Building).
But wait, let me start this again. The Tacoma Art Museum launched Polar Plaza. Downtown supported Polar Plaza, enjoyed Polar Plaza and now understands the relocation of the holiday ice rink to a more appropriate location — one not hampered by physical restrictions that limit the size and impact the operation of the rink.
Overall, that’s good news for Tacoma’s holiday season.
While Point Ruston works on the logistics of receiving the ice rink, downtown stakeholders are bringing ideas, imagination, energy and practicality to filling the void left at Tollefson Plaza.
I recently sat at the table with those stakeholders and was truly encouraged and enlightened by the ideas that came from a variety of interests: City, Chamber, museums, for-profit, non-profit, merchants, business owners, newcomers and old timers.
This was just the first of several sessions organized by the city. Maybe the next will include downtown residents in a discussion of possibilities to move forward with something new.
Not just any something new. Not just something that will activate “Tollefson Square, the empty, concrete space wedged between Commerce Street and Pacific Avenue” as the TNT editorial writer described it.
Rather, something that will play to downtown strengths (now there’s a concept rarely if ever seen in print) and tie together our long, skinny downtown filled with great attractions that are spread out along a thin line with some blank spots between.
My personal favorite so far: a holiday market, ideally with multiple locations in addition to Tollefson Plaza, that could attract residents, tourists and downtown workers. It could send pedestrians to the Foss esplanade, riders to the Link light rail, and maybe the more adventuresome to a horse and buggy ride on Broadway.
Something new that could highlight and celebrate the attractions that are already here.
Those attractions are considerable. Museums. Theaters. Restaurants large and small. Owner-operated businesses from salons and day-spas to tailors to a wild guitar shop and — who’d have thought it — a violin restoration/repair shop.
Antique Row, a regional destination. Pop-ups and changing window exhibits from another Tacoma original, SpaceWorks. And florists and card shops and galleries and more.
Not to mention a holiday season book-ended by a holiday tree lighting (now in its 72nd year) and First Night, the biggest New Year’s Eve party west of the Mississippi.
Any number of skeptics predicted the failure of the downtown Farmer’s Market 25 years ago. The Pantages Theater had a rocky start and was surrounded by predictions of failure — including an editorial cartoon in the Tribune depicting the theater as a sinking Titanic.
Remember Save Our Station? Save Albers Mill? The Cable Stay Bridge, first planned as a concrete plank? All now successes downtown. I’m sure the list can be extended.
Moving Polar Plaza to a new location does not begin to compare with the building of the Tacoma Mall. That exodus reflected nationwide changes in shopping, thinking and urban design.
We’re not mourning our loss. We’re moving forward. We have to dream the plan so we can plan the dream.
Yes, like any urban center downtown Tacoma has challenges to overcome. Some are daunting, indeed. I suspect we all agree that replacing an activity like Polar Plaza won’t be easy. We don’t expect easy.
But I’m proud to be a member of the newest activated, energized, smart and motivated team to take up the challenge. Dream the plan. Plan the dream.
Who knows, maybe we can also find The Hiawatha.
Phyllis Harrison is a Tacoma native, co-owner of The Art Stop and LeRoy Jewelers, and president of the Downtown Merchants Group.