Tacoma hosts developers, investors at economic showcase

VIDEO: 2016 Tacoma Economic Development Showcase

Tacoma boosters pitched the city's value as an investment for overseas and local investors.
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Tacoma boosters pitched the city's value as an investment for overseas and local investors.

“I liken it to a 20-year high school reunion,” she said.

In welcoming remarks to a capacity crowd Wednesday morning at the first-ever Downtown Tacoma Economic Development Showcase, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland alluded to angst and vindication.

Seattle was the prom queen, she said. Tacoma was the girl who hung out in the smoking area. Twenty years later, Seattle had been doing Pilates and wore a fashionably expensive outfit to the party. Then the doors open.

“Who’s that? That’s Tacoma? She looks great.”

“Tacoma is the right place right now,” Strickland said. “It’s pretty exciting for us to tell our story.”

It was a story on Wednesday designed to provide the latest information concerning development projects in Downtown Tacoma as well as to introduce the city to regional developers and investors who may not have been paying attention to the city’s evolution.

It was a story about what comes next.

▪  Patrick Clark, director of campus planning and real estate at University of Washington Tacoma, noted that 4,630 degrees and certificates have been issued since the school’s first diplomas were awarded to six graduates from the school’s inaugural Class of 1991.

Since those early days in the Perkins Building, the school has gone on to transform the lower Pacific Avenue neighborhood.

So look for the Tacoma Paper and Stationery Building, which once housed the Old Spaghetti Factory, to open in the fall of 2017 when it will begin supporting biomedical, engineering and other STEM-related classes.

Many in the crowd applauded when Clark said the Swiss would stay when the building housing the restaurant/pub is remodeled.

▪  Mike McMenamin, CEO of Oregon-based McMenamins, discussed progress at the downtown Elks Lodge remodeling project.

“It’s been a long, hard road for us,” he said. “We’re having so much fun with that building.”

He sad people will likely enjoy what designers have in mind for the horns on the elk above one of the lodge doors. “There will possibly be some fire coming out of the horns, and smoke,” he said.

McMenamin discussed his company’s passion for history and art, and he said the possible inclusion of Old City Hall to the Elks development package would be “a dreamy match.”

▪  Lars Harvey, vice president of Infoblox, discussed the importance of an educated workforce.

“The university is really the reason we’re here,” he said.

He discussed how Tacoma has become a desirable place to live and work, and how his company, which specializes in cybersecurity issues, has looked to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley as likely places to recruit workers.

Tacoma, he said, “is the fishing hole no one else has found yet.”

Early on his company, IID, debated getting office space in Seattle. But Tacoma’s affordability, and with UWT churning out a smart, tech-savvy workforce that his company needs, Tacoma became the eventual headquarters for IID.

“We don’t like driving, so that was one factor,” Harvey said.

▪  Loren Cohen, managing partner at MC Construction and a principal with the Point Ruston development, agreed with previous speakers by saying, “Tacoma has really gone through a renaissance since the ’90s.”

The city today, he said, “is at lift-off.”

Residential vacancies are at a low 3 percent, he said, and the figure drops to 1 percent at Point Ruston.

New projects abound, he said, with 143 units at the Grand on Broadway and with many more units ready or soon-to-open across the city, including at the Napolean Apartments; Presbyterian Homes on the waterfront; the newly announced Stadium project with 173 homes; plus 250 units on Tacoma’s Hilltop; and 173 at the Point Ruston Copperline; plus 225 condos and apartments at Rainier Residences.

▪  Bruce Kendall, president and CEO at the Economic Development board for Tacoma-Pierce County, characterized the current geography of interest.

“We’re getting interest from California. We’re on their radar now,” he said.

Also, he noted inquiries from possible refugees from King County.

“We are also seeing increased interest from people in King County who are being priced out,” he said.

Addressing the developers in the audience, he said, “There is no conversation you can have in the South Sound without talking about the Haub site.”

That would be the “superblock” on Pacific Avenue located where the Greyhound depot once stood and could be developed into a Class A office tower.

Kendall discussed how it is that millennials “fall in love with downtown Tacoma,” and once in love they choose to stay in an urban environment. That’s good, he said, because they tend to be educated and they add vitality.

In terms of an educated workforce, he said, “I don’t know if there is any deeper bench than we’ve got in Tacoma.” Employers, he said, are looking for “talent first and space second.”

Tech firms want to locate near other tech firms, Kendall said. They want to know, “Who can I steal talent from?”

▪  Elly Walkowiak, business development manager at the city, said, “Right now, Tacoma’s market is booming.”

“Tacoma isn’t a place where it’s less expensive and it’s my second choice,” she said. “Tacoma is people’s first choice for many reasons. People want to be here.”

With $1 billion in investments either planned or underway, opportunities are still available, she said.

For example, she said, Johnny’s Dock is for sale, with 1.3 waterfront acres; and there’s the Haub superblock downtown; and the former Columbia Bank/Bon Marche building on Broadway; and the Washington Building, the Cornerstone Building and more.

Though rents in Tacoma are low, Walkowiak told investors to look to the balance sheet for a better indication of a healthy investment. Property and development costs are also lower, she said.

People lingered after the event ended.

“We’ve just educated 200 people on the breadth of what’s happening here,” said Kendall.

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535

Staff writer Kate Martin contributed to this report.