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How will Tacoma make itself into a desirable big city?

Put Tacoma in any other of the 49 states and it would be the largest city in about 16 of them.

Not surprisingly it would top such state-leading metropoli as Burlington, Vermont, and Billings, Montana. Somewhat surprisingly it also tops such better-known cities as Manchester, New Hampshire, and Little Rock, Arkansas. In fact, if you’re just counting the city itself, it even tops Salt Lake City.

Of course, Salt Lake Citians whose civic pride might be wounded by the comparison would note that their burg is the hub of a much larger metropolitan area, and that the city itself is the home of state government, a major university and a worldwide religious organization.

Tacomans might respond that they too are part of a larger metropolitan region. Yes they are. But alas, Tacoma is not in one of those 16 other states, and consequently is not the largest (by population), best-known or dominant city in its state, or even its region. It isn’t even the second-largest in Washington, what with Spokane edging it out for that spot (212,300 to 200,900). Nor can it lay claim to the sort of profile-boosting features such as a state capital, university, pro sports team or corporate cluster of which some smaller cities can boast.

This is not necessarily awful or great, but thinking about relative population rankings matters in the long-run discussions about where this town is, where it’s going and what it might be when it gets there — if indeed it is going anywhere.

The inspiration for these ruminations was the recent release by the state’s Office of Financial Management of its annual population estimates for Washington and its counties, cities and unincorporated areas.

Dry as that might sound, it’s sort of a big deal in government circles because those estimates are used in allocating and doling out certain state funds to counties and cities. If your town is actually losing population, or not growing as fast as others, you might get a smaller slice of whatever revenue pie is being carved up.

It won’t shock anyone to hear that, according to OFM’s report, the state is adding folks. As of April 1, 2014, Washington had a few bodies fewer than 7 million residents, a 1.25 percent gain from 2013. That increase is not only higher than from 2012 to 2013, it’s the largest increase since 2008, when the recession was biting deeply. Slightly more than half of the increase is coming from in-migration, with the addition of 49,200 new Washingtonians representing the first time since the recession that the yearly gain has exceeded the historic average.

Nor will it come as a surprise that the state is adding most of those people in places that already have the most people; the state’s five biggest counties (with Spokane being the only one outside the I-5 corridor) accounted for 75 percent of the overall population gain.

Drilling a little deeper, we find that the cities that added the most people (in actual numbers) were Seattle, Bothell, Vancouver, Bellevue, Pasco, Redmond, Renton, Auburn, Kennewick and Sammamish. In percentage gainers, the big winner was Bothell (annexation was the main driver there), followed by Ridgefield, Tonasket, Winthrop and Yelm.

Notice who’s not on either list?

In fact you can go down to place No. 25 on both lists compiled by OFM and not find the City of Destiny. In terms of adding bodies, Tacoma was outpaced by the likes of West Richland and, closer to home, Puyallup (which also picked up people via annexation).

Do we care? Should we care if the trend persists?

If there’s such an entity as Lesser Tacoma, then its members are just as happy to see all those newcomers clog the streets and roads somewhere else where they obsess about rankings and growth.

But population numbers and growth patterns do matter, and not just in grabbing larger fistfuls of state revenue. They influence where roads and schools get built, where retailers, employers and businesses locate, where cultural amenities and events occur, which in turn begets more population.

Therein lies an opportunity for Tacoma — if it wants it.

The traditional hub-and-spoke design of metropolitan areas, with one major city at the center, is breaking down. For all the talk you hear about shoving people back into center cities — and yes, it’s happening in Seattle, or will at least as long as Jeff Bezos continues his frenetic pace of hiring — the real story is what’s happening in satellite cities, the former suburbs that have grown up into real and sizable cities of their own. Bellevue, for example, hasn’t been the bedroom community for Seattle in years (these days Seattle sends a lot of commuters to the east side of Lake Washington). More and more Bellevue is its own hub for business, retailing and recreation, the connections to Seattle dwindling.

Tacoma’s development pattern differs from Bellevue but the potential is the same for being a regional hub with its own strong identity, its own core of business clusters to create jobs and attract employees, its own activities. The potential for Bellevue, Tacoma or someone else in the South Sound will only grow as Seattle grows ever more expensive and congested.

Tacoma has one other advantage — a population base to qualify it as a regional hub. Like it or not, Tacoma is already a big city, in terms of the number of people living here. Whether it acts like a big city in other ways will determine whether it’s the sort of place where people want to live. The alternative isn’t necessarily decline and ruin, but if some other community seizes the opportunity it won’t just be “Tacoma: At least our name’s on Seattle’s airport!” but “Tacoma: Gateway to Puyallup!”

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

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