Friday, February 1, 2008

Economic Jibba Jabba (look out, kids... it's a long 'un)

I took part in the AngelouEconomics Young Professionals focus group for the development of an Economic Development Plan for Downtown Tacoma at the Varsity Grill tonight. Despite the project leaders' best efforts, there did end up being some fairly interesting discussion.

Okay, that's a bit harsh. Their PowerPoint slides raised a few questions that sparked many a random tangent, which was really the whole point of it.

Anyway, there was quite an assortment of folk there. I won't bother pretending that I know there names, but offhand I took note of urbanXchange Lady, Puget Sound Pizza Guy, a few City of Tacoma people, a gentleman from the Business Examiner and a woman, formerly of the Museum of Glass, now of the LeMay Car Museum. Not to mention the ever-present Blogger133. So just there, in about half the attendees, you have representatives of retail, dining, journalism, government and the arts. Not to mention a decent balance between lifelong natives, transplants and a few born/moved/returned.

I won't rehash the whole evening for you, but there were a few points made worth mentioning (with, of course, expansion provided by the fact that my mind is incapable of reporting anything without inserting every bit of commentary that pops in during writing).

What keeps people away from Tacoma? Too long a memory, and too vague a definition.

There is a pervasive belief that Tacoma is dangerous, violent, a poor environment to raise a child or even to walk the streets at night. And the fact is, there was a time when this perception was not far-fetched. Hilltop after the WASP migration to University Place, downtown Tacoma, Parkland: these places have all, at one time or another, been centers of gang violence, drug problems, etcetera. I will grant that. What everyone else needs to grant, however, is a capacity for change. This is, now more than ever, a community of people who really care about making their city a place worth living in. And the easiest way to accomplish this is simply to do it: don't just reside in the city, but live in it. The fact of the matter is that the best means of reducing crime is to have witnesses. Bring up the legitimate and legal nightlife activity in a region and you will reduce the drugs and violent crime. And we've done that. How much criminal activity do you see on 6th Avenue? How much improvement has there been in the violence plagued northern end of Pacific with the transplant of businesses like Paddy Coyne's and The Matador? We've even got happening nightspots in the heart of the dreaded Hilltop (which, by the way, I walked through many a day and evening when I lived at the top of 19th, never once feeling unsafe). We are a city that is full of growth and promise, ignored because people remember what it once was.

There is also the question of definition. Someone made a very interesting point: Seattle is known by its neighborhoods and suburbs. Tacoma's suburbs are known by it. Say someone gets gunned down on Capitol Hill. People, local media, whomever, will talk about violent crime on Capitol Hill, safety conscious visitors will avoid the area and relegate their travels to downtown, or the U District, or Ballard or Fremont. Now picture a similar slaying in, for example, Spanaway. Nobody knows Spanaway, so it is reported as Tacoma. Killing in Lakewood? Tacoma. In UP? Tacoma. Can't really tell these places apart (apparently), so we'd best just avoid Tacoma altogether.

Who needs major retail? We've got minor retail.

There's been a lot of talk about revitalizing downtown by bringing in some major retail chain. Clothing stores, bookstores, anything to bring shoppers to the area. There are a couple of fundamental problems with this plan.
  1. It's difficult to revitalize an area with major retail when even the minor retail struggles due to a lack of foot traffic. You say the retail will bring the foot traffic? I say they'll take one look at the neighborhood as it stands and bow out. No non-regional business is going to want to be a part of our "We sure hope this works" plan to boost the area.

  2. The greatest potential resource we have in downtown Tacoma is our small-scale retail businesses. Locally owned, locally run, places like urbanXchange, like Buzzard Disks and Stadium Video, like King's Books. These places are the core of what currently makes up downtown. They all survive because people love them and will patronize them despite the neighborhood (or the perception thereof). People will go to the Stadium District for King's, to Pacific for the eXchange, to 19th and Jefferson for Buzzard. This is the beginning of what we need.
So we focus on the small retail. What's the trouble? There is no link between these businesses. The most viable retail options in downtown are completely disconnected. UrbanXchange and Buzzard Disks are, from a top-down view, barely two blocks apart. And, I'd hazard a guess, they draw a broadly similar clientele. But how many people, knowing one, will spontaneously discover the other? Part of this is in the urban landscape. With no streets linking Jefferson to Pacific from 21st to 17th, there is no geographic encouragement. All that exists to lead a patron of The Rock, Buzzard or The Swiss further into the heart of downtown is the UWT stairway. But it suffers from the next problem: continuity of business. People don't mind walking if there is consistently something to see or potentially do. Walk down 6th Avenue and there is a constant stream of restaurants, record shops, galleries and the like. Every time you reach something worth stopping at, something else catches your eye another half block down. Simply the act of trying to park to go to Asado or Masa or whichever new restaurant is trendy this week and then walking to your destination is enough to introduce you to three new restaurants and two wine shops, that will bring you back the next week. We have quality retail options, nightlife options, restaurant options, and nothing to lead you from one to the other.

The most consistent tract of downtown is right around UWT, where we have the Harmon, the Xchange, Hello Cupcake, BKB, and maybe, if you peek your head up around the end, Two Koi. All carefully segregated on one side of the street from the museum strip. And the truth is that they don't need to be led to. No one is going downtown for a cupcake, looking up and saying "wait... there's a museum down here?" What we need is for the museums to be the leaders. but with a nice big median down Pacific, there are just as few people visiting the Museum of Glass who will look across the street and say "There's a cupcake shop? Sounds delicious!"

Something that didn't come up (largely because I'm just thinking of it now) is a means to actually connect these shops. Because that downtown stretch has the potential to be busy. And the bit of Jefferson between 19th and 21st is likewise fairly happening. It's the connection so that the two can feed each other, whilst fostering new development, that's the rub. Since the odds of the UWT stair suddenly being lined with shops are fairly minimal, we need another link. So why not track down from The Swiss to Two Koi? With the restaurant and Tacoma Art Supply peeking up around the corner there, it's like Pacific is calling out to the rest of downtown. All there is filling the space (as far as attracting foot traffic goes) is the Old Spaghetti Factory. The whole area across from that edge of UWT feels ripe for a conversion to retail and nightlife.

From there, it's just a matter of spreading the retail strip further down Pacific in either direction, particularly north toward the financial district. That far northern tip is just starting to bloom, but again, it's not connected to anything. There's a big gap of banks, Starbucks, and Quizno's (among the few Starbucks that is not only not open late, but not open on weekends, because it caters to the financial crowd, because, well... there's nothing else down there worth catering to). Not a simple matter, necessarily, but feasible.

Moving on...

What economic undercurrent drives Tacoma? Independent media.

Another fine point made by Business Examiner Guy. We have the BE. We have the Weekly Volcano. And now we have this, an indie media outlet that isn't even run as a business. While I, like some others on the feed, would be uncomfortable with the term Citizen Journalist (too many implications of journalistic ethics and sensibilities, when people should take us for what we are: people writing what we think), the truth is that we, as bloggers, are our own media outlet. We can report news, promote events, point out new businesses. We can spread information. We can affect government change by virtue of our readership and the quality of work we put out there. We can even nudge, if not full-on drive, the economy. Not like the Volcano or another newspaper via ad revenue and salaried employees, but by guiding people. Heck, sometimes we're TOO good at our jobs, promoting new business nearly to death. What's more, we have events calendars, discussion forums, video galleries, and hell, even our own political cartoonist. feed>>tacoma IS independent media at its liveliest, and can be (has already been, even) a great tool in pushing the economic development in the area forward.

This ties into points made by others: the creative community in Tacoma is off the charts. The feed is full of very talented writers, professional and otherwise. School of the Arts is full of incredible kids who genuinely want to stay in Tacoma and be a part of this world. The local music scene is rife with a treasure-trove of talent just wishing they had an outlet. Look at the success that has had with 253hiphop in such a short span. Give people a chance at media exposure and they will thrive. And when the artistic community thrives, the nightlife will thrive, and it will bring the community along with it.

I could have sworn there were more things I wanted to say, but I spent so much time writing all this that I forgot the rest. Ah well, maybe it'll come back to me. That's all for now. It was getting too long anyway.


Erik B. said...

Great post. Wow.

izenmania said...

But wait, there's more... because I remembered some of the other things I wanted to say last night on my way to work this morning. Stay tuned for part 2, hopefully around lunchtime.

Droid116 said...

That wasn't a blog post, it was a manifesto.

Thanks for taking the time to articulate a well thought out position.

I would even go so far as to suggest you combine the two posts into a document that can be downloaded. It clocks in at about 9 pages 1.5 line spacing and runs around 3000 plus words.

izenmania said...

For one thing, your comment about combining the two posts reminded me that I forgot to put an link from the 2nd back to the first...

One cool thing about this is that I ended up in the focus group because I have certain social contacts within the Community and Economic Development Department of the city who suggested that I participate. I've sent in links to the two posts, and it's been implied that not only is she reading them, but that they may make it to other staff members and to the AE people themselves. Another thing that means is that comments are also liable to be read, so anyone with thoughts on all this is welcome to tack them on.