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Museums greater than sum of parts

Clustering is the economic-development theorem that one plus one equals three.

One biotech company in your town – that’s OK; two or more biotech companies – that’s really good for attracting talent, investor interest and research dollars, encouraging cross-fertilization of ideas and innovation and developing a reputation as a center for that industry.

It’s the theory that Tacoma hoped to translate into economic-development reality with a financial-services district headquartered downtown and anchored by Russell Investments – until events overtook that lofty vision.

The theory of clustering is even more widely subscribed to in tourism. One winery that might attract visitors – good. Two or more wineries to draw oenophiles – much better. For proof positive, take a look at the wine industry’s presence in the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla.

With this week’s long-awaited groundbreaking for the LeMay auto museum, Tacoma has a chance to provide further proof of that theory’s validity, and to prove something about the city as well.

The opening of the LeMay museum, projected for summer 2011, will further bolster Tacoma’s already impressive base of museum attractions – the Washington State History Museum, the Museum of Glass (with the accompanying Chihuly sky bridge) and the Tacoma Art Museum – all clustered within a few blocks of one another. Not far away are the Children’s Museum of Tacoma and the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum.

That’s an excellent start. Tacoma could use more. At one time the Pioneer Motorcycle Museum appeared to be the next piece in the Museum-District portfolio (and a complement to the LeMay car museum), but that idea appears to have withered away.

The additions don’t have to be huge institutions. They can be small collections, focused on specialized interests and niches. What matters is that they add to a sizable whole, a readily identifiable and marketable assembly of museums that will draw visitors for regular visits and special events who will not only spend at those attractions but in nearby restaurants and other businesses.

It’s the same concept by which the Smithsonian’s collection of museums, each with their individual subject matters, draws throngs to the National Mall, or New York’s Museum Row brings tourists to Manhattan.

Better still, it’s something that Tacoma can have to itself – which gets us to the issue of what Tacoma can prove by building a true museum district.

While Tacomans tired decades ago of hearing the once hopeful slogan “City of Destiny” thrown back at them as a taunt over grand visions that faded to disappointment, the city does tend to retain an attitude of resignation: “We can’t pull off something really good, and even if we did, Seattle would just come along and take it away.”

Here is a golden opportunity to create something that will not only be a nice amenity for people who live here and a draw for visitors, but is something that Seattle doesn’t have, isn’t likely to get and can’t take away.

Seattle has a fine collection of museums, but they’re spread out from downtown to Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill to Seattle Center to South Lake Union to Montlake to the University District – not exactly a visitor and pedestrian-friendly clustering of attractions. Nor is it likely to add a car museum to that portfolio, given the size and uniqueness of the LeMay collection and Seattle’s antipathy to all things automotive.

To its credit, Tacoma does seem to be thinking about clustering as a tourism development strategy; the Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitor Bureau website has a page dedicated to the museum district. To that, Tacoma will need to add relentless marketing, both in town in the form of unified and clear signage, and to the wider world, to drive home the message that there is a real museum district here and it’s worth visiting.

That’s what the museum district will be, if Tacoma attends to the other big to-do item – getting the LeMay museum built, open and running. The motorcycle museum had a groundbreaking too, according to archived press reports, not that it resulted in an actual museum in Tacoma.

Museums love to use the word “discovery” to explain their mission and appeal. If Tacoma can realize the promise of the Museum District, then what it may discover, aside from a viable driver of economic activity, is a newly found attitude that, “Hey, maybe we’re up to doing the big stuff after all.”

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