Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: New kind of leadership needed when big-money benefactors leave town

This is the column that was to run last week, until breaking news got in the way.

As it happens, that bit of “this just in” news — Weyerhaeuser moving its headquarters from Federal Way to Seattle — served not as an interruption to but as an illustration and amplification of a discussion thread prompted by a topic in this space two weeks ago (and, unfortunately, in the print edition last week as well — sorry about that).

Readers took up the theme of Tacoma’s big-city status, at least in terms of population, and what needs to be done to fulfill that role to ask some follow-up questions about how that might be accomplished, and by whom.

In other words: Who runs Tacoma?

And, as corollary questions: Does anyone run Tacoma? Should anyone?

If you believe in the textbook explanation of civic affairs, then your answer to the first question is: “This city, like all others, is run by its elected representatives and public officials, with decisions made after careful deliberation and the weighing of thoughtful input from citizens, business, labor and community leaders and others offering viewpoints and suggestions for the betterment of the municipality and the benefit of its residents.”

But of course no city, not Tacoma or Seattle, operates like that. City government may want to run things. It may think it runs things. It may even have a plan for how things ought to be run. Even if it does, though, it may not have the financial resources or organizational clout to accomplish what it wants.

For that you need the sort of civic establishment — a melding of public and private entities, people and resources — making plans and decisions in a way the textbooks rarely acknowledge.

Whether there is such an establishment is rarely in dispute, certainly not by those who decry its presence, its occasional tendencies to steamroll over the niceties of municipal democracy and the self-serving and self-dealing aspects of an establishment that has so much sway over civic life.

The points of contention come with the questions over whether the establishment should exist or have so much influence.

For a better understanding of how this works — and why it matters — let’s turn our attention to Seattle, and two recent obituary stories that came from there.

Paul Schell served just one term as mayor of Seattle, but his résumé had already been extensively written as a developer and participant in numerous civic projects and campaigns. A good chunk of that pre-mayoral résumé was written in Tacoma. To quote from the story that ran in the TNT: “He was president of Weyerhaeuser-backed Cornerstone Development Co., which in the mid-1980s developed the Tacoma Center project around South 13th Street and Broadway in downtown. It included the building holding the first downtown YMCA, the Tacoma Financial Center and the former Sheraton Tacoma Hotel, which is now Hotel Murano.”

Note the mention of Weyerhaeuser, because we’ll come back to that.

The other passing of note was Bob Gogerty, who as “power broker,” “political strategist and business consultant” and “one of the city’s most influential and connected citizens” (to quote from the article) managed to have a hand and role in just about every major high-profile project in Seattle, from Pike Place Market’s preservation to light rail to the Seahawks stadium.

Those sorts of people are important pieces of the establishment, but even more crucial are the people with the money, which has a powerful way of cutting through delay and process.

An abundance of those people and the abundance of their money are what make Seattle a big city in a way Tacoma is not, far more than the simple differential in population. Having people with last names like Allen, Gates, Nordstrom, Bezos, Benaroya, McCaw and Nordstrom, just to pull a few off the walls of buildings all over town, is what has elevated to Seattle to the status of an influential American city and provided the citizenry with some nice amenities along the way.

One more illustration of how that matters, from somewhere else. The new and critically acclaimed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has opened in Bentonville, Arkansas, population roughly 38,000 and thus not even a quarter of Tacoma’s. Hmm, you don’t suppose there’s a company with the financial resources to make that happen, do you?

Tacoma hasn’t had that reservoir of civic capital to tap, and it has a lot less since the days of George Weyerhaeuser, George Russell and Bill Phillip being the triumvirate of influence and clout to make things happen locally.

The three companies those men ran are gone from Tacoma, and so is their local involvement. Federal Way is about to feel the same effect when Weyerhaeuser leaves. It has benefited from having Weyerhaeuser’s presence, in such physical form as the aquatics center that, though a county-owned facility, bears the sponsoring company’s name.

Over the years Tacoma has compensated for some of the local deficit in establishment financial clout with outsized political influence in Olympia. But these days this region is battling with other cities for money the state doesn’t happen to have. Tacoma can on occasion still muster a big-deal contribution to civic infrastructure, such as the LeMays and the car museum and the Haubs and Tacoma Art Museum’s Western-art addition (and the works to go in it).

The lack of a sizable moneyed establishment, populated with decision-makers able to write large checks for large projects, can be viewed as more democratic, more responsive to the true wishes of the people. It can also be viewed as limiting what a community can accomplish and more cumbersome for achieving that which is in its reach. Whatever the view, it’s a reality, one which Tacoma and Federal Way and lots of other places not named Seattle will have to fix or live with.