Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: Not being Seattle could pay off for Tacoma as scenarios unfold

Tacomans are likely so unaccustomed to being given gifts by Seattle — usually the exchange operates in the other direction — that they may not recognize the phenomenon when it occurs.

But it is occurring, not just once, not just twice, but three times, two of those in the form of breaking news items, the third as part of a longer-term trend.

Perhaps terming these as gifts is not quite the right word — opportunities might be the more precise terminology. These gifts aren’t, to use an apparel analogy — ready to wear. Tacoma still has to do make some alterations and adjustments to make them fit.

But it has been (warning: abrupt analogy shift ahead) dealt an intriguing hand, and if it plays those cards right the winnings it could sweep to its side of the table could be very beneficial to the economy and workforce of Tacoma and Pierce County.

We’ll start with the obvious news item, Seattle’s ratification of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We went over this a few weeks back, but it’s worth reviewing why this matters.

The debate over an appropriate level for the minimum wage and the effects on workers, employment rates, businesses and the economy is a legitimate topic of conversation, even in a state with the highest minimum in the U.S. (Washington is at $9.32 an hour).

But the idea of a $15-an-hour minimum ventures far beyond the realm of such questions as “what is the right level” and “what are the trade-offs?” Instead the questions it prompts are more on the order of, “Are you nuts?” And, “have you given a second of thought of how this will play out?”

To which Seattle has answered, “Yes!” and “No! And we don’t care anyway!”

Therein lies the opportunity for Tacoma — for everywhere that isn’t Seattle and SeaTac, actually. Those communities that are astute can pick off the companies that can’t afford to pay $15 an hour to entry-level workers lacking skills and experience but which can move those workers up the pay ladder as they accumulate skills and expertise.

Competing for headline space with the minimum-wage fracas was the news of former Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer dropping $2 billion to buy the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA, and vowing to keep the team in Southern California rather than moving it to Seattle.

Let’s follow the chain of conventional wisdom to see why this matters to Tacoma. Ballmer was an investor in the group, led by Chris Hansen, seeking to buy an NBA team and build an arena in Sodo south of the existing stadiums. With Ballmer owning the Clippers, Hansen is left without a major investor and no immediate prospects for landing a team. No team, no arena. No arena, no building to compete with the Tacoma Dome for concerts, sports events, trade and consumer shows, conventions and whatever else might fill its calendar.

The idea of a new, competing arena in Seattle isn’t dead. The Sodo arena project could suddenly be revived. A candidate team for purchase and relocation could suddenly materialize. An NHL franchise could take the lead. Someone could propose a non-Seattle arena.

But just because it’s conventional doesn’t mean a particular line of thinking is wrong. The odds are strongly stacked against a quick revival of the arena’s prospects, from the NBA’s lingering antipathy to Seattle to the city administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the project to outright opposition from the port to opposition to public financial involvement in a professional-sports arena.

And there’s the golden gift — nay, opportunity — for Tacoma, which for years has been struggling with issues of how to update the Tacoma Dome and how to pay for its renovation. The looming threat has been a new Seattle arena. With that indefinitely tabled, Tacoma has some time and flexibility to come up with a plan for remaking the dome, finding the money and doing more marketing coordination with other venues like the convention center for events.

But it’s only an opportunity if Tacoma does something with it, which gets us to our third item of potential — projecting an air of competence and sanity that is attractive to potential investors.

The $15-an-hour minimum wage is but one more entry in a journal Seattle’s mayor and council are writing of capriciousness and a disconnect from reality. Ed Murray in particular appears well ahead of schedule in his agenda to become the fourth consecutive incumbent mayor of Seattle to be turned out of office by the voters (still on the to-do list: finding someone to run against him in 2017).

Businesses looking to invest and relocate will never say no to freebies handed out, and they’re willing to endure a lot from government, but they do value predictability, consistency, honesty, competence, efficiency and some sense of rationality from the agencies and entities they deal with. If — and admittedly this is a humongous “if” — local government can get and keep its act together, and project an image that informed grown-ups are running the place, that could prove to be as attractive a recruitment and retention tool as any tax break.

It doesn’t mean government has to say yes to everything businesses want, or be the cheapest. But imagine the power of sidling up to a corporate relocation decision-maker, saying “you know, we’re nothing like Seattle’ and have that received as a very positive message.

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