Tacoma fell harder in the Great Recession than Seattle and recovered slower. But with half of 2014 behind us, evidence is growing that a solid expansion is taking hold in the City of Destiny and Pierce County.
It is not the frenetic boom being experienced in Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, which I wrote about last Sunday and is facing its first big test with Microsoft’s layoffs.
Unlike metro Seattle, Tacoma doesn’t have Amazon.com, Microsoft, tech outposts such as Google in Kirkland, a major biomedical cluster and Boeing assemblies in Everett and Renton.
Instead, Tacoma’s trajectory is closer to the national economy, slow and steady.
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One sign of improvement is that unemployment in Pierce County fell to 6.9 percent in May. It’s still high. But at the worst of the recession, joblessness stood at more than 10 percent.
Tacoma lost Russell Investments to Seattle at the depth of the recession. But its place has been taken by State Farm Insurance, which is hiring 1,300 employees.
The Port of Tacoma is prospering at Seattle’s expense, even though the Puget Sound ports as a whole keep losing market share. Unlike in Seattle, Pierce County voters understand the value of the seaport and support it.
And Boeing announced that it would build the composite tail for the 777X at Frederickson, securing 1,700 positions and helping stabilize a sharp drop in manufacturing jobs — part of what puts the grit in the proud moniker Gritty Tacoman. Toray Composites, a major Japanese aerospace manufacturer, is also expanding its Frederickson plant for the fifth time to meet 787 manufacturing demand.
“The Tacoma and Pierce County economy is hitting on all cylinders across all sectors on the private side,” said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO for the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County.
The emphasis, he said, is building private-sector investment, manufacturing, white-collar growth, distribution and intellectual capital, including clean-water technology and energy.
Other examples include an $80 million Amazon distribution center in DuPont, a $50 million Niagara Water bottling plant and $35 million Carlisle Construction Materials roofing manufacturing plant in Frederickson, and a $35 million Navy patrol-boat contract for Safe Boats on the tide flats.
In addition to State Farm, other new investments are at work in downtown Tacoma. These include a $16 million expansion at the Tacoma Art Museum, a new YMCA being built to cater to students at UW Tacoma (UWT), new restaurants along Pacific Avenue, a nine-screen movie theater, new condos and apartments along the waterfront.
Outside investors are buying Tacoma properties, and BNY Mellon is signing a new lease to remain downtown. Cyber security firms are growing, too.
“These companies, and others, also partner with UWT’s IT department and recruit college grads and Ph.D. students to join their teams,” said Ricardo Noguera, community and economic-development director for the city of Tacoma. “UWT has recruited top Big Data minds such as Ankur Teredesai to lead groundbreaking projects with local businesses and organizations.”
To be sure, Tacoma faces some big challenges.
Thousands of homeowners remain under water on their mortgages.
The News Tribune reported that the Army is considering cutting 16,000 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the county’s largest employer, which would undo a decade of growth.
Although unemployment has fallen, metro nonfarm employment remains below its 2007 peak. That labor force is less skilled than its counterparts in King and Snohomish counties.
Pierce County’s median household is slightly below that of the state as a whole, much less metro Seattle.
Also, while Pierce County grew by 3 percent from 2010 to 2013, it was below the state and King County levels. The county faces out-migration to King and Snohomish counties, according to the annual Economic Index report by Neal Johnson and Martin Wurm, economics professors at Pacific Lutheran University.
A major issue for economic-development officials is the state’s continued failure to fund completion of SR 167 between the port and Interstate 5. There’s also a need for more manufacturing and distribution space.
Despite all this, Tacoma and Pierce County are essential elements of the Puget Sound economy. And the significant improvements there are good for the entire region.
”We are operating on a big-city level but still have low housing prices and an active real-estate industry,” Kendall said. ”Our recovery is not perfect, but it is in full swing across the board.”
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com