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Bill Virgin: No easy answers for bringing jobs to Tacoma amid water fight

VIDEO: Port of Tacoma, business groups sue to stop water initiatives

Economic Development Board head discusses lawsuit against Tacoma water initiatives
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Economic Development Board head discusses lawsuit against Tacoma water initiatives

Oh joy. The combatants in the methanol plant brawl, having concluded that one round didn’t provide enough fun for the community, are back for another.

The Economic Development Board, the Chamber of Commerce and the port announced last week they’re taking sponsors of a petition drive for two ballot measures to court. The ballot measures would require a public vote on applications from a single user for more than 1 million gallons of water a day, a threshold that the methanol plant would have far exceeded.

Those ballot measures, by the way, haven’t even been formally submitted for consideration, although sponsors say they’ll do so with comfortable margins beyond the required number of signatures.

The revived fight has multiple components to it — the legality of changing water-use law via ballot measure, water-use policy itself, the methanol plant proposal itself, the strained relations between officialdom and the community (or at least a motivated, vocal and well-organized portion of it), city government’s “maybe we can pretend to be on both and neither side of this issue at the same time” routine, jobs, industrial operations, the future of the port and the Tideflats and economic development strategy and goals for the region.

That’s a lot to read into one community melee, but that’s where we are these days, so let’s focus on the last one.

No one has exactly covered itself in glory in this process. The port and EDB, with their latest actions and statements, come off a bit petulant. They might have been better served by saying, in a conciliatory tone, “OK, you didn’t want the methanol plant. Let’s figure out what we can build there and what you can live with, and what the costs and tradeoffs are.”

The methanol plant opponents were entirely within their rights and responsibilities as citizens with raising questions and then objections to the plant. It’s their community, and even if their preferred use of the property is a weed-growing farm, and they can sway other citizens to their view, so be it.

But there’s been a frequently expressed sentiment that summoning a project that produces more jobs at less cost or risk is as easy as tapping the heels of the ruby slippers together while muttering incantations that include the words “green” and “sustainable.”

It doesn’t work like that.

Economic development is hard, expensive and lengthy work, even when it does work, which is not often. If it were easy, cities and states wouldn’t have such a struggle coming up with replacements to industries upon which they’ve depended but are now headed for the twilight because of technology or regulatory changes. If it were easy, parts of the Rust Belt and the coal regions of Appalachia wouldn’t be mired in decades-long economic depressions.

So much depends on factors far beyond anyone’s control — quirks of history, for example, such as Seattle’s two most successful industries being the result of having Bill Boeing and Bill Gates set up shop here. Or having whatever resources and attributes the Great Economic-Development Planner in the Sky bequeathed you with (in this region’s case, big trees and a coastline).

There is no economic-development Comstock Lode that, with the tap of a hammer, will spew forth jobs-rich projects. It didn’t happen with software (except for a few cities), and it won’t happen with “green” industries. Want in on the solar “boom”? Fine, so long as you can figure out a way to make products cheaper than China does.

Occasionally a gusher (to switch natural-resource metaphors) does come along. Those are exceedingly rare and exceedingly expensive to recruit — think Boeing’s plants and airplane projects in Washington and South Carolina, or the Tesla battery factory in Nevada. That was what likely made Northwest Innovations Works’ proposal initially so appealing to economic-development planners — a multibillion investment on a vacant brownfield site with more than 200 permanent jobs thrown in.

But the community made enough noise that Northwest Innovation backed out (since it never got that far we don’t know if it ever would have cleared regulatory hurdles). That’s one issue resolved, sort of. The port and EDB may have a valid point that the ballot measures are legally flawed. The suit will resolve that issue.

What will remain, however, are a lot more and bigger questions about the community’s future. Suits, ballot measures, inflamed rhetoric and sustained acrimony won’t do much to answer those.

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