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Revitalizing Tacoma

Psst, Tacoma, they're talking about you...

An article on Next City today takes a look at Tacoma - the revitalization of its downtown, and questions around livability for all residents of the city - especially some of those with lower incomes. The title of the article asks a question:

Can Tacoma Build on a Successful Downtown Revitalization?

The Next City article focuses on the impact of the University of Washington Tacoma campus on Tacoma's downtown, and then looks beyond that downtown reviatalization to what the economic picture looks like for the city's residents as a whole. Although the article doesn't call out Tacoma's slow recovery from the recession directly, it does point to some of the symptoms of the slow road to recovery: an unemployment rate 1.2% worse than the statewide average, and 18% of Tacomans living below the poverty line - 5% worse than statewide numbers, and slightly worse than Tacoma's rate in 1989. The article goes on to quote Michael Mirra from Tacoma Housing Authority.

“Considering the relative cost of living, Tacoma is the housing bargain of the West Coast, ... And yet, it’s still unaffordable to many of its residents.”

A middle class, middle-of-the-road, average income in Tacoma will buy you more house than it will in Seattle - not exactly a well-kept secret around here. But for the poorest residents of Tacoma, housing is scarce, and affordable housing not subsidized by federal dollars is even more so.

Although the article's author (who lives in Philadelphia, by the way) stops just short of fully advocating for an increase in Tacoma's minimum wage, he does suggest it could be one solution. He also mentions a state-level Working Families Tax Rebate program that pays matching state funds out to those receiving a federal earned-income tax credit as another possible help... if the state adopts it. Another possibility he raises, if somewhat obliquely, by quoting Tacoma's Director of Economic Development, Ricardo Noguera, is the idea that attracting higher paying jobs to the city would improve average incomes, bringing more money into the local economy.

Maybe a local university, more established, more mature, with growing enrollment numbers, and new program offerings could be part of attracting those jobs.

UW Tacoma turns 25 this year. The campus has come a long way since its first graduating class of just four students back in the early 1990s. From a campus population of 176 students in its first year, UWT has grown, awarding nearly 16,000 degrees and certificates in the last quarter century. This fall the University will welcome a class of 4,500 when classes begin this fall.

With this growth, the University has changed the fabric and feel of downtown Tacoma. Every storefront along Pacific between South 21st and 17th is rented out. There's outdoor seating for restaurants, and busy stops for buses and the Link. UW Tacoma embraces its character as an "urban serving university," with a diverse population of students that includes everyone from Running Start teenagers getting an early start on their degrees, to returning and retired "non-traditional learners," some of whom haven't seen the inside of a classroom in decades. It makes for a diverse learning environment.

It has also meant a solid growth in foot traffic and development radiating out from the campus. In the last few years, the University hasn't just rehabilitated and filled its own campus buildings, it has also acted as a key partner in projects including the City's South Downtown Sub Area Plan. That plan lays out a vision for development in the southern half of the downtown core. It also does some of the early heavy-lifting like environmental impact statements that would have been left to individual developers in previous years.

UWT has lifted the tide in downtown Tacoma, and sent ripples beyond the city into Pierce County. Some of the newer and more innovative programs in particular could contribute to growing more solid, well-paying jobs, and keeping some of those graduates right here, in Tacoma. Of course that doesn't solve the problems of housing stock, and not everyone is destined for a four-year degree, but it's a start...

So, maybe the real question is what else can Tacoma do to build on its downtown revitalization?

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Jim C

I not entirely sure what the point of the Next City article was - that, historically, the UW Tacoma campus was a good thing for downtown (well yeah) or about how we can improve housing affordability? My take is that the high concentration of affordable housing units in the downtown core (aka “Western State Hospital II”) is a significant barrier to revitalization. The author either conveniently or ignorantly leaves out the fact that downtown Tacoma is the mental health-crisis and criminal justice drop off point for the entire county which includes a very large military base.

July 24, 2015 at 2:35 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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In the early 1890s, speculators built fabulous business blocks downtown and attracted rootless newcomers from far and wide to invest in a growing railroad terminus city.  Well, the railroad went broke, many newcomers fled, and entrepreneurs suffered. Seattle bounced back from that recession, especially with the Klondike gold bonanza.  Well,  Tacoma’s also story is about the resilience of those people who remained there and reconstructed the city—Union Station is a testament to their belief in the place twenty years after the 1893 financial crash.  If there is a complaint about a poverty-level of 18 percent in the city, wonder why factories for Parker Paint and Nalley’s Fine Foods now stand empty.  Folks still paint houses and eat relish and chili but those manufacturing jobs are now elsewhere.  The Port of Tacoma and the UW-Tacoma are great public investments but what about basic manufacturing jobs?  Those type of blue-collar employers have also disappeared in Seattle’s Duwamish industrial area but the loss seems more acute in Tacoma where downtown commercial development has also languished compared to downtown Seattle.  Tacoma does a lousy job of marketing its downtown as a business center despite its history of incubating and then developing flourishing enterprises now identified with Seattle’s economy like Weyerhaeuser Company, Russell Investments, the National Bank of Washington (Wells Fargo), Puget Sound Bank (Key Bank) and Pacific First Financial (that became part of later-failed WaMu).  Those dreamers of the 1890s who created downtown Tacoma had vision but unlike the solid citizens of pioneer Seattle many of the newcomers of Tacoma at that time fled.  Tacoma is an older city now with a proud heritage, one hopes with folks who are determined to rebuild their city.  When will folks go out there and start swinging for economic development home-runs to bring decent manufacturing jobs and private-sector led downtown office development back to Tacoma?  The big issue for Tacoma is:  jobs.  And not just better commuter rail service to go to such jobs in Seattle.

July 25, 2015 at 8:41 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Bringing higher paying jobs to Tacoma would do much more harm than good to Tacoma’s poor. Better paying jobs would drive up rent. The poor don’t have the needed skill sets for getting those better jobs. If you’re in collage, have professional skills or own a home in T-Town, better paying job growth is great for you. If you rent, have a fixed income or flip burgers for a living…. well, not so much.

And Tacoma is just going to become a bedroom city for Seattle anyhow. We’ve had decades to sort out our financial problems… with little success. Seattle is so much richer than Tacoma at this point that we’d be better off living off their scraps than we are now.

July 25, 2015 at 11:45 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I agree with Terry, though that ‘would’ in the first sentence should be a ‘could.’ While economic development may be one of the City’s/County’s goals, they need to keep in mind ‘for whom?’ You can generate ‘economic development’ that drives out a good portion of the current population and there should be an honest discussion of whether that is okay. There is difference between attracting new companies that need higher skilled workers than currently available—so those workers are also brought into the region—vs. increasing the skill level of the current population, and consequently attracting new businesses.

July 27, 2015 at 7:40 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Yeah, and it’s even more complicated than that. Currently, many or even most of the big Downtown Tacoma boosters actually live in the ‘burbs (Puyallup, Gig Harbor) or a few small pockets in the North End. Downtown is constantly coming up with revitalization schemes than tax East and South Tacoma in the ruse of bringing in high playing jobs… for white collar folks living in the ‘burbs. The government isn’t every effective on job growth. Quality of life issues are what we need for growth. With all that King County money to the North, just make a town that’s great to live in.

July 30, 2015 at 3:37 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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Terry, open Google maps and look at San Jose, CA and the distance from there to San Francisco, CA.  Then compare side by side where Seattle is and where Tacoma is, even the topography is identical, it’s almost a mirror image of our area here.  Tacoma has and always will have the potential to be great in terms of economic development.  The biggest problem here is leadership, it is very antiquated and stagnant and the politicians here, are well, politicians and taking care of themselves.  We just don’t do enough to bring in business.  Our city needs to simply give away the parcels it owns and then just collect taxes on them from the big businesses it will give them to.  Tacoma is handled like a rural city, not like a city that is only 45 minutes from Seattle.  We need a business man, or woman with a proven track record of recent great financial accomplishments to lead our city if we want financial prosperity here.  Enough with the Downtown, start taking care of the business districts.

July 26, 2015 at 10:38 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Good post Sid.  I’ve thought the leadership of Tacoma has lacked modern vision for a loooooong time now (though like them I did think that the great condo boom of 2005, with units priced the same as Seattle, would save the city…).  I like the idea of giving away the vacant space, right now they should be doing anything they can to create ANY jobs they can.  I’ve always thought that with the number of colleges in the city’s borders that they should be focusing on programs that will entice those graduates to stay rather than immediately leaving for Seattle/Portland/wherever.  Maybe every year they do small investments into X number of student ran startups, setup a coworking space for those companies to use for free and see what happens. 

July 27, 2015 at 4:21 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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“right now they should be doing anything they can to create ANY jobs they can”

That is never going to happen in Tacoma. 

The “they” you reference has run Kaiser out, they have run Hygrade out, they have run ASARCO out, they have run Nalley’s Fine Foods out, they have run Weyerhauser out, they have run Russel Investments out and that is just off the top of my head they have tried to run Sympson Tacoma Kraft out and they will not rest so long as there remains a single good paying blue collar job in the area. 

“They” are currently invested in setting a minimum wage that is far above what the market can sustain for low skilled and unskilled labor and once that has been accomplished restaurant jobs will dry up as independent restaurants close and are replaced by multi-national corporations that have the capital to invest up front in equipment that replaces labor.

July 28, 2015 at 8:26 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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But c’mon, low paid unskilled labor has historically taken pride in their surroundings and been what led to a city’s revitalization!

July 29, 2015 at 6:52 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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I disagree.  Tacoma has a long history of making utilitarian decisions that have negative long-term consequences.  “Cash in right now and screw the future” mentality. 

For instance, did you know the port property was water way south to about 15th street before the railroad filled it in?  That killed off most of the views of the bay from downtown and converted that view into views of factories, tanks, tilt-up warehouses, and trash.

How about the move of shopping to the mall?  Nobody will touch the idea of moving the mall because it’s sales tax revenue is too important… but what about the idea of having shopping downtown and what importance that would be to creating a dynamic culture there?  How about two malls - one way in the burbs and one downtown?  What is the importance of foot traffic in downtown on safety, housing, businesses, etc?

How about the military base at JBLM? It forever changed Tacoma’s housing market to a transient one full of rentals (especially south Tacoma) where nobody is really invested in the area.

How about the stink factory paper mill and the perception it gave Tacoma since it’s opening? 

I could go on and on…

Even if giving land away to businesses to locate here, they wouldn’t.  They can pay more for bare dirt to build on in Seattle, but construction costs are about the same as in Tacoma… sorta.  Some parts of downtown are on solid rock and can’t do an underground parking garage… so that makes Tacoma MORE expensive than Seattle and the landlord gets half the rents.

I mean, I lobbied for the business I work for to have a Tacoma presence in downtown.  The owner said no because of perceived safety risks to employees, costs to park, and higher than needed taxes - when we could really locate anywhere.

July 27, 2015 at 4:34 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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At best, the “Next City” essay is an infomercial for UW; and a diatribe on the good and bad effects of governmental subsidies.

I don’t see the need for describing Tacoma in relation to any other city, in terms of history or economic resources. Tacoma has a free public school system that prepares students to determine which course of action is best for themselves and this city. If the educated and virtuous citizens of Tacoma decide to flee this city, it’s partly because of the need to avoid the pain of people who accept and identify with essayists who train people to be mindless.

July 27, 2015 at 12:55 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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Coming soon:
Automation: McDonald’s Introduces Kiosks So Customers Can Have (Money-Saving) Non-Human Food Ordering

July 30, 2015 at 3:52 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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altered chords

Why do the buildings look like they are ready to fall into the street?

July 31, 2015 at 1:20 pm / Reply / Quote and reply

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