‘Live Downtown Tacoma’ urges business leaders to encourage employees to live – where else? – in downtown Tacoma

People once lived in houses in Tacoma’s nascent downtown. Residents later lived in hotels of a varied standard. Then, well, nearly nobody lived downtown.

Over the past two decades, people have returned. Today, business groups and developers are encouraging people to take up residence in Tacoma’s core.

Such was the message Wednesday as a group of business owners and leaders met at a breakfast sponsored by the group “Live Downtown Tacoma!”

In brief remarks, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland – herself a downtown resident since 1996 – noted that a core residence is “productive for employees and it absolutely helps your bottom line.”

Sarah Champion, director of operations at Web designer SiteCrafting, called downtown residency “fiscally responsible,” and said prospective employees often desire elements including a short commute and support for continuing education, both available to those who live in Tacoma.

Bill Robertson, newly minted as MultiCare president and CEO, said of the program, “I know employees want to live close to work. This helps them.”

To bolster those sentiments, Bonnie Windsor, vice president of human resources at Johns Hopkins Hospital, noted via videophone that her organization established the current equivalent of Live Downtown in Baltimore in 1998.

Since 2008, she said, the program has been awarded 350 grants totaling over $3 million to encourage urban living.

Depending on the neighborhood, individuals in her area are given between $5,000 and $36,000 to establish residency. An anonymous donor, she said, helps supplement program funding.

“The more depressed the neighborhood, the larger the grant,” she said. “People who live near their work help stabilize the community.”

Dr. Ali Modarres, director of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma, said that following a downturn, cities have a “golden window” during which they can define the future. Using a census map that shows commuting trends, he noted that relatively few employees of major employers live downtown.

Rather than be distressed by the data, Modarres said, “I see this as an opportunity.”

“We need walkers. We need pedestrians,” he said. “We need a better connection to the waterfront.”

Kristina Walker of the Live Downtown program said major incentives similar to those in Baltimore are not yet available.

“We’re working on that,” she said.

So far, she said, 28 businesses have agreed to join the Live Downtown program – which is available to employers and employees without charge.