Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Tacoma’s economic pep rally was a good start, but it’s only the beginning

Matt Driscoll
Matt Driscoll Staff photographer

If the written accounts are to be believed, all that was missing were the cheerleaders.

By all indications, it fell somewhere between a pep rally and a timeshare presentation.

On Wednesday, Tacoma’s mayor and economic development bigwigs, among other business luminaries, packed into the giant metal larva that is the LeMay-America’s Car Museum for what was billed as the first-ever Downtown Tacoma Economic Development Showcase.

The task at hand: Convincing a varied list of developers and potential investors that T-Town is up-and-coming, and that downtown is the place to be.

There’s a solid case to be made, and the hard sell was on. Lars Harvey, vice president of Infoblox, likened Tacoma to a “fishing hole no one else has found yet,” while developer Loren Cohen called it a city “at lift-off.”

Mayor Marilyn Strickland, however, provided the most evocative description of Tacoma’s ascent, using a 20-year high school reunion as the metaphor. She described Seattle as a former high school prom queen, and Tacoma, well, as the girl who hung out in the smoking section.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland provided the most evocative description of Tacoma’s ascent, using a 20-year high school reunion as the metaphor. She described Seattle as a former high school prom queen and Tacoma as the girl who hung out in the smoking section.

Now, 20 years later? As The News Tribune’s C.R. Roberts and Kate Martin noted, Strickland said Seattle was beautiful, if not a little botoxed, fond of Pilates and fancy clothing.

Enter Tacoma.

“Who’s that? That’s Tacoma?” Strickland described the make-believe, movie-like reaction, setting the scene.

“She looks great.”

(Full disclosure: I have never attended a high school reunion, so I can only take the mayor’s word for the amount of suspense and superficial judging they entail.)

The question is simple: Is Tacoma actually attractive to the type of well-off movers and shakers the city is so desperately enthusiastically courting?

Those of us who live here, and have invested our energy, if not our big bucks, in making it the city it should be, have long seen the virtues in this place — even when they required a dust broom and elbow grease to uncover. Tacoma’s history, its struggle, its character and — most importantly — its characters make this a place where people want to be.

Unfortunately, these qualities can take a city with aspirations like Tacoma’s only so far. And attracting businesses to invest here is a far more challenging proposition than simply finding residents willing to love it.

 

Tacoma boosters pitched the city's value as an investment for overseas and local investors.

Kate Martin kmartin@thenewstribune.com

So while the first-ever Downtown Tacoma Economic Development Showcase probably felt a little like a late-night infomercial — only missing Vince from ShamWow to really seal the deal — you can’t blame the folks who man the city’s economic development department for trying.

Despite the glowing praise delivered — much of it deserved, some of it a bit hyperbolic — Tacoma still faces sizable hurdles.

We’ve got a workforce in waiting, but not necessarily one with the size and skills needed to fill a major overflow from Seattle’s high-tech boom. While seducing a Google or Amazon is fun to fantasize about, a more realistic focus would be on small startups.

Even more pressing, let’s not forget the blue-collar workers that made Tacoma what it is. The time we spend wooing sexy tech jobs should at least be matched by the time we spend figuring out how to get people back to work in family wage jobs. That doesn’t have to mean selling off our soul to the methanol or fossil fuel overlords, but it does mean focusing significant energy on one of our greatest assets — the deep-water port.

There’s also a scarcity of Class A office space downtown, the kind that developers and would-be employers covet. And, making matters trickier, the Class A space we do have is scattered, meaning a company interested in moving to Tacoma would be hard-pressed to piece together a significant footprint.

We also need to find an effective way to tell Tacoma’s full story to developers who might be interested in building here but are scared off by low rents — which was surely one of the big motivations behind Wednesday’s festivities. Yes, rents here are lower, but that fact alone doesn’t do justice to the full scope of what an investment in Tacoma can reap. Rents aren’t the only thing that’s cheaper in Tacoma; so is building and living.

Last, but certainly not least, never forget one of Tacoma’s most shining and enduring qualities:

It’s not Seattle.

“Tacoma is the right place right now,” Strickland told the crowd Wednesday. “It’s pretty exciting for us to tell our story.”

The challenge, as always, is making sure people listen to the end.

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