Tacoma has morphed through multiple iterations in its history — log-cabin outpost on Commencement Bay, City of Destiny with the landing of the Northern Pacific terminus, industrial center, and the also-ran, slow-or-no-growth town eclipsed by its larger and glitzier neighbor to the north.
And now? Bedroom community? Commuterville? Relief valve for those driven out of Seattle and much of King County by unaffordable housing prices?
The Pierce County Economic Index report, presented recently by Dr. Neal Johnson of Sound Resource Economics, had a banquet of food for thought about where Tacoma and environs are and where they’re going, including this insight into local employment:
“While King and Snohomish (counties) have a jobs-to-employed ratio of 1.07, Pierce County has a ratio of 0.81, meaning many people who are employed in Pierce County hold employment outside of the county. With approximately 135,000 Pierce County residents employed outside the county, this pattern of commuters is expected to strengthen as workers are attracted to the lower housing prices.”
The consequences of that trend are easy to identify — more commuters on the road (or on transit systems) and more upward pressure on housing prices locally.
Neither is a new phenomenon for Tacoma, which has experienced the occasional fits and bouts of escalating home prices and increased congestion fueled by companies (Weyerhaeuser and Russell being the most prominent examples) chasing after the brighter lights of the bigger city, and refugees from an overheated Seattle real estate market chasing affordability.
Those were usually short-lived, and cooled if not corrected by an economic downturn. In ancient times those contractions and plateaus tracked Boeing’s boom-and-bust cycle. These days, Seattle’s real estate climate is driven by tech expansion, with money sloshing around the local economy from that industry and just a lot more people pouring into a region that unlike, say, Phoenix, Dallas or Atlanta, doesn’t have a surplus of land.
Not a lot of good comes out of this situation for a city like Tacoma. Having more people spending more time and money commuting represents income not earned here, money not spent here and time not available for family and civic activities here. Feverish bidding for houses works only to the advantage of those who are selling and leaving for somewhere else.
What to do? One option is for Seattle to get its act together enough to come up with a housing plan to accommodate growth while not chasing out the middle class.
We’ll pause here for you to stop laughing.
There are two problems with that plan. One problem is to assume that an affordable, growing, geographically constrained city is achievable now. It hasn’t worked for Manhattan, it’s not working for San Francisco or Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle isn’t likely to be the first, especially (and here’s the second problem) given the city’s inability to come up with a coherent plan for anything.
So if we can’t raise the bridge, let’s lower the river.
What Tacoma needs is a plan to generate, attract and nurture the companies to keep those people at home, with commutes that run about 15 or 20 minutes, not an hour and 15 or 20 minutes one-way, on a good day.
That doesn’t require schemes and dreams of making Tacoma another tech hub or going on a massive and expensive company-recruiting binge. It will require a comprehensive, coherent development plan, containing elements we’ve discussed in the space over the years, and hundreds of small fixes and new initiatives that in the aggregate make a big difference.
▪ We can target niches such as advanced manufacturing and trade and logistics where Tacoma already has a presence and some advantages.
▪ Make the community safe, attractive, pleasant, even fun to live in.
▪ Make it a place that’s easy to do business in.
▪ Be a cheerleader for entrepreneurship by making it easier to start and operate companies.
▪ Beef up the business, science and engineering programs at the region’s community and technical colleges and its universities, thus addressing a point in Johnson’s report about the lack of qualified workers being a constraint on job growth locally.
Do those sorts of things and not only will Tacoma and Pierce County generate jobs, they’ll attract companies tired of the cost and hassles of operating in Seattle. This hasn’t happened yet, but we’ll keep predicting it.
“Suburb” and “bedroom community” have been used derogatorily about towns with no business core to speak of, no cultural amenities, just a place. It’s still used in Seattle to dismiss Bellevue, ignoring that the Eastside City has grown into much more than a bedroom community surrounding a mall.
That could be Tacoma’s next transformation. It might seem an odd question to ask a city whose age can be computed in triple digits, but actually 2017 is an ideal time to ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org