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When Seattle bigwigs come calling, tell them the Port of Tacoma is open for business

Intercity chamber-of-commerce study missions sure have come down in the world when, instead of the opportunity to jet off to some exotic foreign city, participants are offered a junket to … Tacoma?

Not to worry — not that you were going to expend much sympathy anyway — the Greater Seattle Chamber hasn’t abandoned its program of jaunts to far more distant and fancier locales — Atlanta-Savannah (2012), Los Angeles (2013), New York (2014), Chicago (2015), Miami (2016), San Francisco (2017), Denver (2018) and Charleston, S.C. (this year). Nor has it scrubbed its annual programs of international schmoozing — sorry, study missions — to such destinations as Singapore, Mexico, China, Amsterdam-Brussels, China, Paris and Chile.

With a menu of offerings to rival a travel agency’s brochure, one wonders why the Seattle chamber would bother with its smaller, less significant neighbor just to the south.

As it happens, the Tacoma’s turn for the Seattle chamber also offers an annual program of excursions to such nearby but mysterious locales as the Eastside, Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, Chelan and Okanogan counties, Skagit and Whatcom counties, Southwest Washington and Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla.

This year it’s the Port of Tacoma to descend upon it.

The theme, says a chamber announcement, will be to “explore what ideal partnership looks like with our neighbors to the south. … With over 10,000 individuals moving to Tacoma in the last eight years and more than $1 billion being invested in their downtown infrastructure, Tacoma is a force to be reckoned with. We will learn from local business and civic leaders, take a boat tour of scenic Commencement Bay, explore historic Tacoma districts, and more. We will also have the opportunity to hear from Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards on her vision for the city’s future.”

It also notes that the delegation will be led by Marilyn Strickland, a former Tacoma mayor and now Seattle chamber chief executive.

Wary Tacomans, noting that the partnership between the two cities in the past has on occasion consisted of relocating civic assets like company headquarters northward, might fret that the trade mission is a scouting expedition to see what else might be lifted. They might also worry about further encouragement in Tacoma of some of Seattle’s less attractive policies of governance, as well as trends — call it “Ballardization” — that threaten the town’s distinctive neighborhoods and features.

Exactly what participants will learn from the study mission that couldn’t be gleaned more efficiently by making a few calls, using the internet or actually making the arduous 35-mile journey on their own is also open to question.

But as long as they’re coming, we might direct their attention, as they take the cruise in Commencement Bay, to one of the sights they’ll be seeing — The Port of Seattle.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance, the arranged marriage of the maritime operations of the region’s two biggest ports, last week issued a request for proposals for the 50-acre Terminal 46 property in Seattle (roughly to the west of the stadiums and to the north of the Coast Guard station).

“Terminal 46 has a long history as one of the busiest marine cargo terminals in the Pacific Northwest,” a seaport alliance announcement says. “As part of a realignment of cargo and infrastructure, including the authorization to modernize Terminal 5, Terminal 46 is no longer being utilized for international container cargo operations.”

What would replace it? The ports are vague about that, beyond references to “marine cargo operations, logistics and other maritime support activities.”

The Port of Seattle does plan to convert 29 acres of adjacent property to a single-berth cruise-ship terminal.

Here’s the fix the ports are in. The ports are loath to give up a large, prime piece of waterfront property. But just how prime is that property anyway, at least for maritime purposes? Between the challenges of getting freight to and from rail and highway connections through an already heavily congested district and the uproar any redevelopment there is likely to provoke from various interests and groups, some potentially interested parties may decide they’re looking for something less hassle-intense.

That’s presuming, of course, that there is demand for more capacity for marine cargo and related operations. Ports from Prince Rupert, B.C., to Mexico are pouring millions of dollars into new facilities in the midst of a global debate about the future of cargo volumes. Who knows where trade relations between China and the U.S. will be in late September when the study mission is scheduled, much less five years from?

Proposals for Terminal 46 are due Nov. 1, so we’ll know then what sort of interest there is in the property. In the meantime, the Seattle delegation should be given an eyeful of the Tideflats, and lots of propaganda — sorry, information — about how Tacoma makes more sense as a place to put maritime-related operations, as well as the related offices to support logistics and supply-chain companies.

Not that Tacoma doesn’t have its own land-use and freight-mobility issues, but it’s still better positioned than its northern neighbor for an expansion of the marine-trade industry that Seattle, in its evolving incarnation, is ambivalent toward at best.

That’s a message that ought to be driven home to the study mission. If delegates buy in and decide to leave some economic-development goodies behind, Tacoma can send them away happy with a memento of their visit — like a commemorative tin of Almond Roca. That sounds like a fair trade. One might even call it an ideal partnership.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at