A Seattle business delegation will voyage to Tacoma Sept. 26 to scout commercial potential. The traveling party would do well to prepare for a wary welcome in the City of Destiny.
Tacomans carry a long, bitter familiarity with watching civic assets depart northward. Little tends to return from King County besides evening commuter traffic.
The pattern has imprinted the South Sound psyche. If Tacoma grows into a more complete city, Seattle and the larger region would draw immense benefits. But cooperation toward that has long been absent.
Decades of migrations left ample scar tissue: Russell Investments removed a huge fraction of Tacoma’s white-collar jobs with its 2009 move to Seattle. Weyerhaeuser, which left Tacoma in the 1970s for Federal Way, ended up in Pioneer Square in 2016. University of Puget Sound sold its law school to Seattle University in 1993. Until a move announced in 2017, the kidney-health enterprise DaVita was one of the few large businesses headquartered in downtown Tacoma offices. This month DaVita broke ground to expand its new Federal Way home.
Tacomans have enthusiastically greeted Reign FC, but the move of a single soccer team (which appears in no hurry to attach Tacoma’s name to its own) doesn’t salve the longstanding wounds.
The short end of the stick also stands out along Commencement Bay. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma aligned in 2015 to end decades of competition. In four years since, Tacoma’s port has attracted waves of street protest against unwanted tenants — a for-profit immigration jail and industrial-scale methanol and natural-gas proposals. Meanwhile, Seattle’s port has welcomed record cruise-ship tourism and launched Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Marine Blue” initiative for a sustainable maritime future.
Occasionally, but inconsistently, Tacomans have rallied against this one-sided state of affairs. The secret 2016 plan by University of Washington and its public radio station KUOW to subsume Tacoma’s KPLU roused a $7 million campaign to keep public radio in Tacoma. Now called KNKX, the station just proudly opened a new downtown Tacoma studio. Parishioners at Tacoma’s Holy Rosary Church have a similar fundraiser to save their deteriorating century-old landmark, which the Seattle Archdiocese decreed it will raze instead of repair.
The congregation is wise not to rely on hope new Archbishop Paul Etienne will keep Holy Rosary towering over Interstate 5. Tacoma’s concerns tend not to draw a lot of altruism from Seattle. Little came from Tacoma’s labor in a longshot bid to lure Amazon’s HQ2.
Into this long-fraught relationship between Washington’s first- and third-largest cities comes the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, guided by Chamber President and CEO Marilyn Strickland, to “explore what ideal partnership looks like” between the cities.
As Tacoma’s mayor from 2010-18, Strickland has unique standing to broker relations. She watched tens of thousands of constituents leave each morning via cars, buses and Sounder trains for 30-miles-away office jobs in Seattle businesses or Olympia government agencies, and now makes the commute herself.
She marveled that the chamber’s Tacoma trip has drawn far more attention than its trip to Bellevue and other east King County cities last year. There’s a good reason. Either this expedition will foster a more sustainably balanced future, or it’s the last grab for plunder before Tacoma should re-christen itself “the Bedroom Community of Destiny.”
It is only a mild stretch to call Tacoma today a city of 210,000-plus people and no jobs. A chart on the city’s website shows that the largest employers as of 2017 were in society’s sustenance vocations — health care, schools and government. The largest for-profit business listed, State Farm, has since pulled its 1,400 jobs out of downtown Tacoma.
So why should Seattle business leaders take this trip?
Seattle’s bursting infrastructure of traffic jams and housing overdemand requires a solution. Tacoma has infrastructure to pull more of the region’s commercial weight than it currently carries, with room for more. Cranes soar above Tacoma today to erect several new apartment buildings and a 23-story Marriott.
But Tacoma has long fumbled away its postindustrial chances, abetted by Seattle’s more advanced commercial environment. At least it keeps the lines short for restaurant tables and parks.
Tacoma opportunity exists now in assets that are fairly well-rooted: vacant office buildings and hordes of well-educated workers who would rather not commute.
It’s unreasonable to expect Seattle’s tech giants to willingly move away from their workforce. A Google worker can switch to Amazon or Facebook now simply by crossing the street. But much as Bothell has cultivated a strong biotech sector, Tacoma should create a productive business identity for a perfectly useful city just as close to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as Seattle. The larger city should help this growth, rather than pulling away resources as they ripen. The region’s lopsided jobs-housing balance could stand a smoothing out.
That’s a far less jarring path for Seattle’s growth than upsizing and upzoning endlessly so everyone can sort of fit.