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Shooing away Tacoma's dark cloud

Shooing Tacoma’s dark cloud

What did we learn this year?

In this time of festivity and celebration, we take a quiet moment for reflection and contemplation, perhaps with an adult beverage in hand (you do the consuming; we’ll refrain from drinking and writing) on the topics discussed in this space during 2010.

What we find when we do is that we covered a lot of territory and ideas in our weekly get-togethers, everything from ethnic groceries to why bank interiors look the way they do, from good and dreadful ads to outsourcing (and Boeing’s continuing difficulties with that strategy) to bad ideas for supposedly bailing government out of its financial debacle (a state income tax, legalizing marijuana).

But we also find some running threads, recurring subjects and overarching themes, the most prominent of which might be summed up as: What is Tacoma’s place in the economic world?

To read the news items that inspired (or provoked) many of those columns, one might get the impression of Tacoma as the municipal embodiment of Joe Btfsplk, a character in the long-forgotten comic strip Li’l Abner. According to that font of all contemporary knowledge, Wikipedia, Joe is “well-meaning, but is the world’s worst jinx, bringing disastrous misfortune to everyone around him. A small, dark rain cloud perpetually hovers over his head to symbolize his bad luck.”

Even on gorgeous, cloudless days in the Puget Sound region, Tacoma seemed to have its own perpetual economic thundercloud looming over its noggin. It wasn’t the recession, or just the recession; everyone’s got that, although it showed up locally in such places as motionless container cranes at the Port of Tacoma and still-vacant storefronts downtown.

More than that, though, it was the unrelenting shower of bad news unique to Tacoma that made the city appear to be stuck in perpetual November.

Consider the lowlights: The actual move of Russell to Seattle (where, to add insult, executives floated the idea of a concentration of financial-services companies, an idea that Tacoma had worked to promote with Russell as the centerpiece). The last vestiges of Nalley departing Tacoma. More bank closings (including Rainier Pacific). And, in the last month of the year, the governor threatening to put up the plywood over the state history museum.

But the story of woe-begotten Tacoma is getting old, and not just because everyone and every town have problems of their own. It’s a story told even in good economic times, and frankly it wasn’t all that fascinating to the rest of the world even then.

That’s why this column has devoted a good bit of ink and space in 2010 to discussing ideas for Tacoma to be something other than a name that fills up space on the state highway map between Seattle and Olympia.

Among those ideas: Making the city the amateur sports capital of the Pacific Northwest. Leveraging the already significant and growing military presence into a cluster of companies that use the expertise and analytical power of vets as a resource. Molding the considerable higher-ed resources of the city and county into a recognized hub for study and research. Finding new niches and opportunities in once-written-off industries such as forest products and maritime. Using the port and the region’s legacy in international trade to build a concentration of companies skilled in logistics. And using the 2011 opening of the LeMay car museum not as the end point of development of the museum and tourism district but as a catalyst for even more expansion of that sector.

These are not get-rich-quick schemes or long-shot gambles. In many cases they use existing facilities, institutions, resources and companies to go after niches that aren’t on the list of every state, county and city in America.

Nor do they require a lot of something that no one has at the moment anyway: Money. What they do require is a municipal sense of purpose, a willingness to be aggressive, perhaps even a bit nasty in going after these opportunities. For example: If saving the history museum requires yanking control away from the state and establishing an independent, sustainable revenue stream and financial base so that it can never be used as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations by politicians – well, there’s an item for your 2011 to-do list.

That’s what we’ve learned from this admittedly bumpy year. Those in business often counsel, and are counseled, that hope does not count as a strategy. For Tacoma’s future, neither does moping.

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