Business Columns & Blogs

It’s time to move past ‘potential’

A late weekday afternoon, with the sort of weather and setting that displays Tacoma to its best advantage: Flawless blue sky, the mountain in clear, larger-than-life glory, watercraft of every type and size cutting wakes into Commencement Bay, temperature just warm enough to dispel the need for a sweater, not so warm as to discourage people from enjoying the sun.

It’s a perfect time to take stock of Tacoma, its strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities, from street level.

We – columnist, columnist’s wife and cute baby in stroller – are here on this mid-July afternoon to participate in the Evergreen Wanderers’ Art Walk (columnist’s wife being an enthusiast of volkswalks) along the Foss Waterway and through downtown Tacoma.

It’s a simple route – start at the entrance to Thea’s Park, head south along Dock Street, make the 23rd Street jog to D Street, south a few more blocks to 26th, west to Pacific, north all the way through downtown to the entrance to Schuster Parkway, right on Fourth Street and down the hill back to Dock Street.

Just the first quarter-mile or so of Dock Street gives a pretty good view and sense of Tacoma’s story: The industrial heritage in the form of boat and rail yards that still propel the economy, the old buildings (Northern Pacific, Old City Hall, the Dock) and new condos, the museums, the “what do we do with it now?” Russell headquarters, the parks and walkways, the potential ... .

Ah, that word, potential. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot with Tacoma, sometimes followed by the phrase “for great things,” sometimes preceded with the open-ended word “unrealized.”

The challenge for Tacoma is seeing that “unrealized” is not a permanent fixture in front of “potential” – or, even worse, that it is not replaced with the adjective “squandered.”

You can see lots of hints and starts and progress toward realizing the potential down here; you can also see, later in the walk, plenty of economic evidence that whatever progress is to be made will be slow and hard-won. Not a lot of money to be flung around these days on potential.

A few turns, a few detours around fenced-off sidewalks, a pause to watch a streetcar rumble by (at least at this hour, it appears to be packed), and we’re on Pacific Avenue.

The Pacific Avenue of today is not the Pacific Avenue of 1987, when your business columnist first joined The News Tribune. Though stories about a Tacoma renaissance made periodic appearances over the years, no one who had a good look at Pacific Avenue back then was seriously using the word potential.

Today? With the University of Washington, some eateries and other businesses, the old buildings along this stretch of Pacific now appear to have a purpose for being.

The museums on this night are thronged with couples, seniors, families, kids. True, it’s a free-admission night, but it’s the sort of lively activity that raises hopes of – dare we say it – downtown Tacoma’s potential.

It’s a hope that is severely tested in the more northerly stretch of Pacific Avenue downtown – one empty storefront after another, suggesting that the only enterprises doing well in this recession are those printing the signs advertising vacant office and retailing space.

A few hardy retailers and other establishments are hanging on. You cheer them on, and quietly worry whether they’re being sustained by more than hope and potential, neither of which are tangible commodities with which to pay rent.

Banking offices remain, although the names have changed considerably from the late 1980s (no Puget Sound, or Rainier, or Pacific First, or First Interstate, to name a few of the departed). The upper floors of the office buildings have law and accounting offices.

Clearly that’s not enough critical mass to fill in Pacific Avenue’s vacancies. What will provide it? And who, in this economy, is willing to make the leap of faith about potential before someone else has tested and proven it?

Having finished the walk, we head over to Sixth Avenue, another section of Tacoma that, even if commercial activity was slightly more robust than Pacific Avenue in the late 1980s, still hardly resembled a vibrant neighborhood.

But on this night, the sidewalks are well-populated, the restaurants are doing excellent business, and there’s a sense that, by happy accident or design, this corner of town has (for the moment) figured out how to make it work.

We visit an old standard of the neighborhood, one that long predates Sixth Avenue’s reawakening, enjoy a good meal at an excellent price, then clear out before the horror of karaoke takes over. It’s been a good evening, and an experience that’s both reassuring and sobering.

Yes, Tacoma’s revitalization is not a lost cause. Yes, there is potential here. Yes, in pockets and spots, potential has graduated to success. Yes, in more pockets and spots, the trend is well established in the right direction.

And no, it isn’t going to be easy or happen overnight.

Between the recession, the challenges, the opportunities elsewhere, disinterest, poor planning or execution, it might not happen at all. Realizing Tacoma’s potential for improvement rather than decline will be no stroll through the park, even on nights perfectly made for such a walk.

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