The news stung and felt unfortunately familiar.
DaVita, and the 500 employees it has in Tacoma, will be gone by 2021.
Talk about an economic gut punch.
Once again, one of Tacoma’s larger employers is on its way out, and the announcement left some in the city searching for answers.
Why does Tacoma seem to come up on the short end of the stick when businesses weigh life here versus life elsewhere?
It’s a timely question, especially when looking for future lessons and meaning.
But the news also took my mind somewhere unexpected — specifically, to a parking lot downtown next to the office building DaVita will abandon.
It’s a very nice parking lot, perhaps one of Tacoma’s best, really. It has trees, some shrubs, even a few spots of shade.
It also has plenty of space for cars, which I suppose goes without saying.
The lot was born as a business incentive. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, some perspective.
Most of Tacoma’s reaction to DaVita’s departure probably stems from an economic snub we just can’t seem to shake.
While it’s been many years since Russell Investments ditched the City of Destiny for Seattle, DaVita’s decision instantly reminded us that some wounds fester and reopen all too easily.
Losing a major private employer to Seattle — and especially a homegrown one — left a lasting mark.
But losing to Federal Way, where DaVita is consolidating operations?
C’mon. That’s just insulting.
So what do we make of it?
My first reply is to not react with self-flagellation and focus on marketing the property for the next tenant (of the building DaVita will vacate). We need a thriving economic ecosystem that can withstand departures. We also need to understand that some businesses prefer suburban office parks.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
Theories and viewpoints abound when it comes to Tacoma’s competitiveness in attracting and maintaining large employers.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, predictably, has a view.
“These decisions are often real estate transactions,” Strickland said. “We can offer a suite of incentives and tax breaks, but companies may still choose to leave. Leases expire, companies shop around. These shifts are not uncommon in mega-regions, and we are part of one.”
Still, there are certain approaches people seem to agree on.
Tacoma could do more to grow and diversify its economy, so inevitable departures don’t leave such a void.
The city also needs to find new ways to create a more fertile ground for innovation, entrepreneurs and expansion. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy to do, but it is imperative.
One thing that would clearly help Tacoma compete is more available office space, but that gets tricky. There hasn’t been any Class A office space built outside of Seattle and Bellevue for the last two decades, Strickland notes, and Tacoma vacancy rates are low — meaning there’s little room to grow.
Unfortunately, a bill that would have incentivized the construction of commercial space in cities like Tacoma fizzled in the legislature this year.
No one said economic development would be easy.
But what DaVita’s departure really highlights is a need to market ourselves to the kinds of businesses that actually want to be in our city and benefit from the location we have to offer.
“My first reply is to not react with self-flagellation and focus on marketing the (DaVita) property for the next tenant,” Strickland said. “We need a thriving economic ecosystem that can withstand departures. We also need to understand that some businesses prefer suburban office parks.”
Strickland gets points for a fine zinger, and extra credit for adding a needed dose of reality to a conversation where hyperbole seems to be the default response.
In all of this, it’s important to keep in mind that Tacoma is not without its selling points, and companies are choosing our city, not just spurning it.
Just ask State Farm, whose operations center now inhabits the former Russell building and part of the Columbia Bank Center. Or California tech company Infoblox, which recently doubled the number of employees at its Tacoma office.
Still, there are lessons to be learned about the need to make Tacoma attractive to new business and especially about the danger of getting desperate.
In times like these, they’re perhaps the most important lessons to heed.
Which brings me back to that lovely parking lot.
It’s right next door to the Peter Sandberg Building where the 500 DaVita employees at the root of this column will work until 2021.
The lot, formerly the home of Sauro’s Cleanerama, was created by the city in an attempt to make kidney-dialysis company happy. The decision came at a time when Tacoma was reeling from Russell’s departure, and DaVita had recently contemplated a move elsewhere.
Barring an unforeseen development miracle, the lot will persist, both as a patch of asphalt and an example of just how horribly wrong short-sighted attempts to appease large employers can go.
Now, with DaVita on its way out, it’s hard not to wonder what else that parking lot could have been.