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The opening of McMenamins Elks Temple is a win for Tacoma. We’d do well to support it

Locals swoon over McMenamins Elks Temple on opening day

McMenamins Elks Temple in Tacoma opens to huge crowds and rave reviews as local residents and workers on lunch breaks flock to the site to see bagpipers outside and all the artwork that’s happened inside.
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McMenamins Elks Temple in Tacoma opens to huge crowds and rave reviews as local residents and workers on lunch breaks flock to the site to see bagpipers outside and all the artwork that’s happened inside.

“There’s no cheering in the press box” is an abiding rule of sports journalism. Even if it’s a team beloved since childhood, the alma mater or the hometown nine or eleven playing, those covering the spectacle are supposed to maintain a decorum of objectivity.

Similarly, business writers are supposed to play it straight when covering companies, be they local or national. Win or lose, success or failure, our job is to lay out the facts and the events without rooting for a specific outcome.

How then, the reader might ask, does that match with the continuing coverage of McMenamins moving into the former Elks Temple building? Chain restaurants and hotels open and close all the time without such hoopla. Old buildings get remade, or get demolished, all the time. What’s the big deal?

The easy (and true) out is to say, “Well, we started it.” A previous purveyor of perspectives in this space, Dan Voepel, floated the idea of McMenamins taking over the 103-year-old building and chased after it, in the finest tradition of newspapers promoting various civic causes through sustained campaigns of coverage.

The reasons the opening of a local McMenamins matter run deeper and require some explanation (or, to use two buzzwords of the moment, “context” and nuance”).

It’s Tacoma (1): Tacoma has done a remarkable job of adding to its portfolio of nice things for locals to enjoy and tourists to visit over the last two decades. None of it came easily.

Tacoma doesn’t have the population base, corporate base or name recognition of its northern neighbors (Seattle and the Eastside) that have people racing to invest money in them. Getting a McMenamins in town is a win on multiple levels, starting with the fact that as diners scan the menu at a McMenamins in Portland or Eugene or Seattle or Bothell and see that there’s one in Tacoma, they’ll be prompted to say “Hey, we should go check that one out.”

It’s Tacoma (2): Tacoma Mall opened in 1965, and the city’s downtown has been battling for oxygen ever since. For a variety of reasons, other Northwest cities — Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, B.C. — didn’t lose their downtowns as malls opened.

Tacoma came as close to losing its central business district as it’s possible to do while still claiming to have one. There’s still lots of work to be done before Tacoma’s downtown can realistically be described as “back.” If Tacoma’s downtown does come back, it might do so in a very different form than in its pre-mall days (the day of the department store looks to be over, and there are fewer banks to occupy entire office towers).

But any sort of revival needs people and businesses; McMenamins provides both. It’s a big start.

It’s Tacoma (3): Even as Tacoma celebrates McMenamins’ arrival, there’s a cloud of worry, stated as, “I just hope people will support it.” McMenamins is taking a big gamble here, because of the cost and size or the project, and the uncertainty over whether Tacoma will generate sufficient business to justify the risk.

Those who have followed Tacoma’s saga for a while know the phenomenon of the false spring — every few years a civic renaissance is proclaimed, only to have it sputter out because of a local calamity (a major employer leaves) or a wider economic downturn.

But every sustained economic win preserves the momentum built by other projects and economic-development wins. “This time is different! This time it’s real!” are dangerous phrases, but a few more wins like this and just maybe it will be.

It’s local and individual: By the strictest definition of the term, McMenamins is a chain. With more than 50 hotels, restaurants, breweries and pubs in just two states, having one of its locations here wouldn’t seem unusual.

But the opening of a McMenamins merits attention in the way that another chain’s latest franchse wouldn’t, not just because it’s headquartered in Portland but because the company’s properties don’t all look alike. McMenamins specializes in revitalizing historic buildings with individual features and appearance. Maybe there are companies in other parts of the country doing the same thing on a similar scale, but McMenamins is what we’ve got here, and so far they seem adept at it, enough to take on the Elks Temple in Tacoma.

So adept, in fact, that it’s the name everyone conjures up when there’s a cool old endangered building — Old City Hall in Tacoma, the seminary building at St. Edward State Park in Kenmore — people would like someone restore and put to use. As it happens, other groups are doing those two projects, and when Surge Tacoma opens the doors on the new Old City Hall, we’ll make a big deal of that, too.

Because that, like this, will be. So go on, cheer a little, hope for the best a little — and then start thinking a lot about what this town needs next.

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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