Tacoma has seen a very different recovery than Seattle. There’s no boom, but improvements and great potential.
Seattle lately isn’t accustomed to setbacks. But go down to Tacoma for a different story.
Just this month an important downtown employer, kidney-dialysis company DaVita, announced it would leave the heart of downtown, taking 500 back-office employees and emptying a 10-story building on Pacific Avenue, a main thoroughfare.
Regionally, this represents a shuffling. Weyerhaeuser left its Federal Way office park for Pioneer Square in Seattle, the better to attract young talent that wants city assets and the option of not driving. DaVita previously moved one-third of its employees to the old Weyerhaeuser digs and will consolidate entirely there by 2021.
Bruce Kendall, chief executive of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, told The News Tribune he’s not concerned about finding new tenants for the building.
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“That is one hot property,” Kendall said. “There is going to be a lot of interest from a lot of companies in that building for sure.”
The story continued: “Office space vacancy rates are low, he said, and companies interested in Tacoma don’t have a lot of choice when looking for space here.”
The operative word is “here,” as in Tacoma, which faces plenty of competition from the rest of the Puget Sound region.
And beyond the brave words, it’s gotta hurt. More so considering this is the dark gift that keeps giving: Weyerhaeuser, one of the great historic companies of the Northwest, abandoned Tacoma for Federal Way, across the King County line, in 1971. Now the once futuristic Federal Way site is sucking away a downtown employer Tacoma can ill afford to lose.
Let’s get two things out of the way.
It’s not fair to compare Tacoma with Seattle. The latter is more populous, richer, filled with major corporate headquarters, a world magnet for talent and one of the most important technology centers in the United States. History was also kind to Seattle, and often cruel to Tacoma after that city’s initial win of the first transcontinental railroad to the Northwest.
It’s not fair, but inevitable, including for site selectors, startups and hotshot computer-science graduates.
Also, plenty of good things are happening in Tacoma. By most measures, the city and county have bounced back from the Great Recession. The nonfarm workforce in the Tacoma-Lakewood metropolitan division totaled 315,000 in June. That compared with the pre-downturn peak of 288,000.
Tacoma’s economic-development office claims that $1 billion is being invested in downtown “and nearby areas.” Last week, ground was broken for a 22-story Marriott near the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. The biggest post-recession win was a State Farm operations center in the former Russell Investment building (Russell moved to Seattle in 2010).
In June, United Parcel Service announced a big warehouse lease that could bring between 800 and 1,200 jobs to the Tacoma Tideflats.
Still, Tacoma — like most American cities — has seen a very different recovery from Seattle. It’s been slower, moving in fits and starts, and a product of what I’ve called the “come as you are” recession. Communities that entered it on a powerful trajectory, especially major tech hubs, came out stronger. Places with weaker economies and limitations emerged with those still banging along, like an older car with a muffler dragging on the road — but you’ve got to drive it.
Measuring Tacoma is a challenge. I know, I know: “Gritty Tacomans” don’t want to be Seattle. But like it or not, Tacoma is competing for talent and capital against the world. It can’t have nice things, or even keep beloved gritty things, if it doesn’t compete. And that requires benchmarking.
To be sure, Tacoma and nearby communities are part of the larger Puget Sound region, in the Census Bureau’s Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan statistical area. People commute to jobs, capital flows, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma now work together.
Another method is measuring against yourself. So, as of last July, Tacoma was 6.5 percent more populous than in 2010 and Pierce County 8.3 percent larger. As noted above, overall jobs have grown. House prices have nearly recovered to 2007 levels.
But self-measurement can be myopic and cause complacency.
For example, according to the Economic Innovation Group’s Distressed Communities Index, 12.3 percent of Pierce County’s population lives in distressed ZIP codes. It might be unfair to compare that against the 1.7 percent in King County. But it’s also worse than the state’s overall 8 percent.
Also, Washington’s June unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, but Pierce County posted 5.1 percent. The poverty rate for Tacoma is 18 percent vs. the U.S. average of 13.5 percent.
Finding a peer city-county for comparison would be ideal. But Tacoma is perhaps unique: A West Coast port city, spectacular surroundings, medium population, that largely lost out on the tech boom. It’s more affordable, but too far from Seattle to play Oakland to our San Francisco. And its largest employer is Joint Base Lewis-McChord (more than 57,000 as of last year).
Having lived in four military towns, I recall that the bases bring plenty of smart, capable people. But they also carry social problems, such as businesses preying on young military families, many of them forced to live on food stamps, and when undesirables are discharged some stick around off base.
The verdict: Tacoma may keep on being Tacoma. The best outcome under this scenario is that it gains enough ground — income, jobs, companies — to appear stable.
Or Seattle’s boom may eventually really ignite Tacoma, especially when better transit can connect it frequently and reliably to downtown Seattle. It may take years, but this may be the City of Destiny’s destiny.