Hey, world, come to Tacoma! We’re open for business!
We’ve got a spiffy new website, and one of those ranking surveys no one’s ever heard of says we’re a top 10 digital city (with an asterisk, for our population group)!
So bring your companies and your jobs!
Well, except for you. Maybe not you either. If you’re thinking about doing something with fossil fuels, or what might be considered heavy industry, move along. And as for you, maybe you’d be happier somewhere else.
Economic development is a long-running obsession of this space, in large part because the proprietor of the column has seen what happens to cities, states and regions of the country when you don’t have much of it.
Economic development also gets a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to the first Tuesday after the first Monday every November. Purely coincidence, no doubt.
The topic of economic development figured somewhat in this year’s municipal elections in Tacoma and Seattle, but it wasn’t the dominant issue in either place, even though it’s a factor in so many other issues, including housing affordability, traffic congestion, even crime.
It could well get a lot more attention as the winners in those elections take up their new jobs in mayors’ offices and city council seats, and start trying to figure out how to make their cities work.
As they do, those elected officials will need to address a crucial issue: How does the economic-development message you think you’re sending compare to the message prospects are receiving.
Tacoma’s new econ-dev website, MakeItTacoma.com, certainly projects a ready-to-do-business attitude, with local attributes that include streamlined transportation, an educated and skilled workforce supplied by multiple higher-ed institutions, affordable real estate and a welcoming environment for startups.
“By doing business in Tacoma, you’re investing in a vibrant, international city with prime access to Pacific Rim markets, a bustling downtown, and affordable real estate,” the site proclaims.
In fact, the phrase “bustling downtown” makes several appearances on the website, as does the promise of 15-minute commutes for everyone.
Downtown Tacoma is certainly bustling when compared to the downtown of 25 years ago, and commutes can be decent as long as they don’t involve I-5, but a certain poetic license can be excused in what everyone understands is a promotional vehicle intended to portray the city in the best possible light.
What will really attract notice of those considering Tacoma as a place to do business, though, is the sort of debate now occurring over land use and the future of the Tideflats.
It’s not just the specific rules for specific uses in that specific area of town, although that’s certainly of interest to any sort of prospective industrial tenant considering operations. It’s also the matter of who or what is next on the agenda list, and whether municipal leaders can be counted on to sustain their initial backing.
Nor is it just a matter of industrial development vs. environmental quality, as the Tideflats debate has been framed. It’s also a matter of such policies as taxation.
Seattle, having decided to mimic the state’s attitude on federal marijuana laws, has enacted a municipal income tax, despite the teensy problems of state-level court rulings and statutory prohibitions on such a levy.
Politically, Seattle can get away with it, since the city’s attitude seems to be that it has more economic development than it knows what to do with and doesn’t care if some people are turned off by the prospect of an income tax.
Legally? The issue is now in court; feel confident enough to bet on an outcome?
If the not-so-unthinkable happens and the municipal income tax is upheld, that poses an interesting conundrum for Tacoma and other cities: grab some revenue for themselves with a local income tax of their own, or use the lack of a tax as a competitive tool to recruit companies that will themselves contribute to tax revenues locally and hire employees who will do likewise.
Tacoma’s new mayor and City Council will get multiple opportunities in the new year to make decisions that affect whether the town shows up on or is crossed off lists of potential sites for new offices, factories, research facilities, distribution centers and other investments.
Seattle City Council members are already making noises about another run at a per-employee tax on the city’s biggest companies (voted down last week). Is that something Tacoma wants to copy to get tax revenue, or avoid as a disincentive to business?
Location and investment decisions are driven by a galaxy of factors, ranging from the mundane (where the CEO wants to live) to the specific and detailed (operating costs). Many of those factors are beyond a city’s control.
But whether intentionally or inadvertently, cities are constantly sending messages about their receptiveness to business, and those who pay attention to such messages won’t be receiving them from a splashy website.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.