Business Columns & Blogs

What do we have worth fighting for?

Sure hope you’re looking forward to one of the highlights of Tacoma’s cultural calendar, the 17th annual Wintergrass bluegrass festival starting this week, an event that draws performers and fans from all over the country, adding vitality and economic activity to downtown and…

Umm, what’s that you say? Wintergrass is no longer a Tacoma event? It’s been moved?

To Bellevue?

Sigh. Add one more entry to the long list of companies and cultural amenities, from the terminus of the northern transcontinental railroads to Weyerhaeuser’s headquarters to Russell Investments’ offices, that Tacoma and Pierce County have lost to their northern neighbors.

Leave aside for the moment the specific factors that led to the departure of Wintergrass – hotel room rates, the atmosphere for impromptu jam sessions, the facilities available – or those that contributed to the loss of other landmark companies or features that set Tacoma apart.

After awhile, the accumulation of losses tends to resemble a scene from the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in which Emile Belloq, relieving his rival Indiana Jones of some archaeological treasure, reminds him, “Dr. Jones... Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”

Of course, in the movies Belloq got his eventual comeuppance with that whole face-melting unpleasantness, but so far as we know no one is suggesting that is a reasonable expectation for Tacoma’s rivals to the north (whether anyone believes that’s a desirable outcome is another matter).

So, if that’s not going to happen, the question becomes how Tacoma makes the best of its Second City status, of being permanently in the shadow of and under constant threat of having its best features pilfered by Seattle and King County.

What’s really ours? And how do we keep it?

Ted Levine knows the problem of Second Cities generally and of Tacoma specifically. He is the chairman of Development Counsellors International, a New York-based firm that is in the business of, as he puts it, “marketing places.” One such place his company worked for was Tacoma, about a decade ago.

The phenomenon of a smaller Second City trying to get noticed isn’t unique to Tacoma, Levine says. Another client his firm worked with was Spartanburg, S.C., which was a blue-collar town that suffered in comparison to nearby Greenville.

“You try to find out something that is different and better in terms of the dominant city you have near you,” Levine says.

In Spartanburg’s case, Levine’s firm found – and touted – a statistic that made the town tops in the nation for per-capita foreign investment. In the case of Tacoma, Development Counsellors seized upon Tacoma’s early venture into high-speed telecommunications networks, and proclaimed it the nation’s leading “Wired City.”

The campaign won awards, Levine says, but that was the least of its accomplishments. It gave the city something to claim as its own and be proud of, and it established a point of reference for outsiders.

As intangible as those might seem, Levine says such factors do matter in tourism and economic development. Second Cities “tend to have inferiority complexes,” Levine says, a diagnosis Tacomans would ruefully agree with. Meeting planners and potential investors often pick up on whether a community believes in itself. Among the factors site selectors are checking on their list is whether the mood of a community is up or down. “Most companies do not want to get involved” with a community with no faith in itself, he adds.

So that leaves Tacoma … where? In order to tell the world what we have to be proud of, we first have to have something worth boasting of (artificially inflated self-esteem won’t do it; the marketing slogan has to come second) – and then figure out how to keep the grubby mitts of Seattle and King County off it.

We can be reasonably certain that a number of items in which Tacoma justifiably takes pride – the zoo and aquarium, for example – are safe, if only because Seattle already has one of each.

The bridges? Both cities have had unfortunate incidents of bridges disappearing beneath the waves. Tacoma’s twin replacements for Galloping Gertie (a claim to fame in its own right) with their dramatic setting and vistas will likely stay put, not just because of their size and location but because Seattle seems, for the moment, unlikely to figure out a replacement for the 520 bridge before it too becomes a very large waterlogged concrete sculpture.

How about the military bases? Seattle and King County wouldn’t have anywhere to put them, much less the political interest in taking them. As this column posited recently, there’s considerable potential for increasing Joint Base Lewis McChord’s economic connections with the community.

What else have we got? Maybe it’s time to revisit and re- emphasize the Wired City angle. Since Tacoma’s Click network occasionally attracts renewed interest from Seattle as something that city would like to replicate, it must be of value. The port? Time to make a bigger play for the city as a trade and logistics center.

How about the long-promised museum district? Some of the components are in place, although it would behoove all parties involved to resolve lingering issues and get that project moving. How about making more of the presence of three universities (as well as multiple community and technical colleges) to make Tacoma an educational center?

As for keeping that which we think makes Tacoma worthy of attention, visitation and investment – we might as well acknowledge the constant threat that someone will want to leave, or be lured into doing so.

But if we have the things that make this a community worth living in – not just the high-profile big-ticket items but the crucial day-to-day stuff, such as a vibrant private sector generating jobs, technologies and new companies, and a government that is more help than expensive hindrance – then the temptation to leave diminishes dramatically.

Those are hugely difficult-to-achieve tasks, and many cities never master them. It’s up to Tacoma, its leaders and its citizenry whether they want to try, or whether they find it easier to wallow in that inferiority complex and be left to perpetually wonder, “Geez, what are they coming for next?”

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at