Every part of the Puget Sound region suffered its own special torment during the Great Recession. For Pierce County, overbuilt single-family housing left a massive crater when the bubble burst.
That’s why it’s especially good news that the new forecast from Bruce Mann and Douglas Goodman, professors of economics at the University of Puget Sound, indicates that the worst appears to be over and this sector is recovering. “The gains will not be, however, to restore activity to prerecession level.”
Overall, only slow growth is expected in 2013. For example, labor-force participation grew by 1.4 percent in 2012 and is seen increasing by 1.8 percent this year. Construction jobs will do better, but this is digging out of a deep hole. It was one made deeper when Russell Investments, downtown Tacoma’s corporate crown jewel, moved to Seattle in 2010.
In December, with King County unemployment at 6.1 percent, the number in Pierce was 8.5 percent.
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This is right down the road from Seattle, with cranes on the skyline and enough spare change to pursue an NBA team, and Bellevue, with its own fresh downtown expansion set to go.
I know what some readers are thinking: Here’s a columnist for The Seattle Times beating up on Tacoma and Pierce County. “Come down here and we Gritty Tacomans will show you what a real smackdown feels like.”
But I write in peace. Everyone in the region has a stake in a strong Pierce County. Yet aside from a few touchstones, especially the Port of Tacoma, this part of the region consistently underperforms.
For example, the latest report on city competitiveness by the Milken Institute ranks the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metro area No. 13, with Silicon Valley No. 1. Tacoma ranks No. 107, down from 64 in 2011.
It wasn’t supposed to work out that way, or so the cursory history goes. Tacoma was selected in 1873 as the Puget Sound terminus of the Northern Pacific, the first transcontinental railroad to the Northwest. The city was the headquarters of powerful Weyerhaeuser and was built by the profits of timber and shipping.
It was the City of Destiny.
But destiny was a fickle muse. Seattle got its own transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, followed by more lines. Then came the Klondike gold rush, airplanes, software and biotech. Seattle was always more of a city on the make, destiny be damned.
Tacoma followed the trajectory of most American cities after World War II, with the decline of its downtown and the rise of suburbia. Weyerhaeuser moved across the county line to Federal Way.
This turned around somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s. Tacoma still had civic stewards, such as George Russell, Herb Simon, Bill Philip of Columbia Bank. They led a successful effort to bring a University of Washington campus downtown, repurpose the old Union Station and establish the Washington State History Museum.
Those same businessmen were also very generous to the community. They were very supportive of United Way, chamber events and especially the arts. The Frank Russell Co. and Columbia Bank were perennial sponsors of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts and Tacoma Actors Guild.
They led revitalization of the downtown theater district and creation of the Museum of Glass. The cars amassed by Harold and Nancy LeMay became the core of LeMay America’s Car Museum, which opened last June adjacent to the Tacoma Dome along Interstate 5.
Tacoma invested in a fiber-optic network. The Superfund cleanup of the Thea Foss Waterway provided an inviting location for new urban housing.
It’s interesting to wonder what might have been without the economic disruption of the 2000s and the Great Recession.
Even so, the Russell Co. was sold to Northwestern Mutual in 1999. Stewards died and weren’t replaced. And while Pierce County saw much sprawl-house building, it failed to catch successive waves of innovation and reinvent itself for the 21st century.
Today, the economy is heavily dependent on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, government employment and the Emerald Queen casino. State Farm has a major operations center there and is rumored to be looking at the empty Russell building in downtown Tacoma for expansion. Amazon.com plans to open a $100 million distribution warehouse in DuPont.
While better than nothing, these don’t create many high-wage jobs or spawn leading-edge industries. And the big military presence makes the county unusually vulnerable to inevitable cuts in military spending.
Much of the county is very livable, defined by less-expensive housing and some good public schools. But it lacks many walkable neighborhoods or the dense, lively urban core that attracts young, highly skilled talent. The transit system has been gutted by cuts, making the county even more dependent on cars.
Pierce County’s troubles are one big reason why the Port of Tacoma will barely talk to Seattle about more collaboration to reverse the Puget Sound’s declining market share in container traffic. That challenge was not reversed by Tacoma winning the Grand Alliance and Hamburg Sud shipping lines from Seattle.
The port is Tacoma’s one unquestioned economic prize, with the popular and political support to do whatever it takes to grow. And it lures more than shipping.
For example, Kiewit/General/Manson has a $586.6 million contract to build the 520 floating bridge, anchors and 44 supplemental pontoons. Crews are building the pontoons on property leased from the Port of Tacoma and Concrete Technology Corp.
There is no wall at the county line. Thus, Pierce County residents commute to jobs in King and Snohomish counties.
But it’s not good enough to accept that Pierce will be the Riverside and San Bernardino to Seattle’s Los Angeles.
Perhaps that’s inevitable. But this effete Seattleite sees much greater potential in gritty Tacoma, especially if it could make a vibrant downtown.
If Pierce County could elevate its economic game, the entire region would benefit. As long as it lags, we’ll all suffer against a world of competitors.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org