Remember Chicken Little? An acorn hits her head, and she thinks the sky is falling. Silly Chicken.
But lately, acorns keep fallin’ on my head and I wonder …
Tacoma has two economic engines: Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the Port of Tacoma. They don’t just create jobs; they grow the economy by using outside money. (Tourism hasn’t realized its potential. And health care retail, and government employment recirculate local dollars but don’t add to the whole.)
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Lately we’ve had warnings about our engines.
JBLM may lose as many as half its troops by 2018, dropping from 30,000 to 16,000. That mean fewer uniforms at the dry cleaners, fewer apartments rented and fewer civilian jobs on post. Plus spouses and kids go away. It’s like eliminating all of Tacoma west of Orchard: We’d notice.
The port will have problems too, despite having the strongest annual growth of any U.S. port last year.
As News Tribune columnist Bill Virgin has written, competition is intensifying dramatically. Prince Rupert in British Columbia is increasing its terminal capacity by 50 percent; the Panama Canal is spending $5 billion to let huge freighters sail nonstop between Asia and East Coast ports; Los Angeles and Long Beach will spend a combined $5 billion to compete with the Panama Canal; and the Chinese, Russians, and Nicaraguans are discussing a second canal to capitalize on increased trade with South Asia.
Grow or die
Something else hit me when the state released population numbers. In the last year, Washington grew by almost 100,000 people, or 1.3 percent; but Tacoma added only 500, barely three-tenths of a percent. What happened?
Nothing new. Tacoma has been losing “market share” for 50 years. In 1960, we had 5 percent of the state’s population; today we have half that. When people move to Washington or grow their families, statistically they choose not-Tacoma. And this despite the national trend toward urbanization.
Why? Maybe because violent crime is triple the state rate or because our air is the dirtiest in eight Puget Sound counties or because property values continue their steady decline while local government becomes increasingly expensive. And this while our economic engines are healthy.
If we don’t get a grip, the whole tree may fall on our heads.
Look, every community has problems. Remember Pittsburgh when steel-making went off shore? Seattle in 1970, or New York nearly bankrupt in 1975? New Orleans after Katrina? Detroit?
Some communities bounce back. Some cities are good at attracting new money and talent. But other cities lose the competition. Now, as we approach an economic moment of truth, I don’t understand our plan for winning
OK, maybe I’m running around like my head’s cut off, obsessing over unlikely problems and ignoring the good: State Farm, Point Ruston, new retailers and hotels, our natural beauty, higher ed, vibrant arts and culture. But if either or both our economic engines sputters, the sky could fall. I want us to be ready.
So please, will someone, anyone, articulate our economic development strategy in terms of measurable results? Will someone explain our economic “disaster recovery plan”? Then I can go back to sleep under that tree.
Ken Miller is a longtime Tacoma resident and former News Tribune reader columnist.