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Did HGTV slight Tacoma? Maybe, but image doesn’t matter where economic development is concerned

Yes, that's former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland on the “PBS NewsHour” broadcast after the 2014 State of the Union address. No, they didn’t move the Space Needle to Tacoma, but it often feels like the City of Destiny will forever live in the shadow of the big town to the north.
Yes, that's former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland on the “PBS NewsHour” broadcast after the 2014 State of the Union address. No, they didn’t move the Space Needle to Tacoma, but it often feels like the City of Destiny will forever live in the shadow of the big town to the north. PBS

A reader writes with an updated version of a long-standing and familiar complaint: the slighting of Tacoma, inspired this time by cable channel HGTV’s promotion of its Dream Home competition which this year features a luxury residence in Gig Harbor.

On the HGTV website, the reader notes, “There are wonderful images of the home and the historic Gig Harbor waterfront. There are also more descriptions and photos of ferries and Seattle attractions and neighborhoods. Nothing, though, about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge or Tacoma places, like Point Defiance, Point Ruston or Thea Foss Waterway. Tacoma is not only ignored by HGTV, it is like it does not exist.

“Am I petty, paranoid or provincial about the slights at HGTV's promotion of a Gig Harbor dream home than forgets Tacoma but celebrates Seattle?”

The reader is not wrong in his description of HGTV’s portrayal of Gig Harbor as a quaint waterfront town in the Seattle orbit. A website gallery of photos describing the area has a photo of, horrors, the Seattle aquarium, not the much closer one at Point Defiance. The caption of a photo of a ferry advises that a Gig Harbor resident could commute to Seattle by driving to Bremerton and taking the boat. The Seattle Wheel, Pike Place Market, the Ballard locks, the Center for Wooden Boats, the Olympic Sculpture Garden — they’re all represented.

At first glance it’s one more entry on an already lengthy list of perceived civic affronts, cases in which Tacoma was overlooked, ignored or had some asset poached from it by Seattle (although the recent selection of this city’s former mayor to head Seattle’s chamber of commerce was a curious, even eyebrow-raising, move).

At second glance it’s easy to dismiss fixation on such a list as an unproductive exercise that no one beyond the city limits cares about if they notice it at all.

But at third glance, the reader’s query does prompt some reflection on questions about the city’s economic-development direction and fortunes.

Specifically: Does Tacoma suffer by not having its own profile or image beyond “it’s somewhere near Seattle”? Does it need one? Is there any realistic expectation that it could develop one?

The answer to the last question is both easy and blunt: No. Some cities have the luxury of conjuring images in the mind’s eye, even for those who have never been here, just by the mention of their name. Sometimes it doesn’t require even that: the silhouette of a landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, Gateway Arch, the Space Needle, will do.

Tacoma doesn’t have one of those. Yes, there’s the mountain, but almost every town in a big slice of Western Washington can claim a view of it. Museums? Good ones here, but, unless you’re the Louvre, those won’t stick in anyone’s mind. Parks and waterfront? Nothing unique about us.

Actually, the reader does mention one landmark that Tacoma has and much of the world has seen, even if they don’t remember where it is: Galloping Gertie. But it’s kind of hard to do a lot of civic promotion with a monument to engineering failure now sitting under water.

The answers to the first two questions are more nuanced, but we’ll use the same answer: No.

States, counties, cities and ports spend millions of dollars trying to create an image among decision-makers, whether that decision is where to take a vacation or where to spend money on a new office or factory. Does it work? Maybe for tourism, although certain destinations are always going to dominate regardless of who else is trying to elbow their way in for attention.

For economic development, though, the image campaigns quickly blur into a certain sameness.

Everyone has a great workforce, great schools, great access to markets, great lifestyle, great incentives, great everything. Those factors matter in the decision-making, but a company is not likely to build its list of candidates for a major investment on the basis of a high profile or image. No one would describe Seattle’s business-climate image as business friendly, especially for small business, but companies continue to pour money into the town. The cities that came up with the most visible stunts (to create an image) in the Amazon HQ2 competition were the ones most likely to be eliminated in the first round.

For Tacoma, the most promising route for long-term economic-development success lies not in image building (assuming that’s even possible) but in making sure that the basics, the stuff that decision makers really focus on, are in place. That means taxes, regulatory hassles, roads, freight mobility, energy and water, developable land, schools, available and trainable workforce, quality of life and a few dozen other not-flashy but significant considerations. It’s slow, laborious work, and it won’t stop people from using Seattle as the focal point of the region because they figure no one has ever heard of Tacoma.

But among those who matter, they’ll know.

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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