Photo by Frank Flavin

Michael Catsi started his career during one of the country’s most challenging economies. Originally from Sydney, Australia, the economic development manager at Tacoma Public Utilities earned a Bachelor of Science in geography from the University of New South Wales and built the bulk of his economic-development career in southeast and central Alaska. When Catsi first came to Alaska as a traveler, he didn’t imagine he would stick around for three decades.

In 1990, Catsi found himself in the panhandle community of Skagway, home to 850 year-round residents. He met his wife there a year later.

“I never moved to Alaska; my wife and I always say, ‘We just never left there,’” Catsi joked.

Catsi has worked in economic development for nearly two decades, and his own career has had some interesting turns. “So many people coming into Alaska follow these nontraditional career paths,” said Catsi, who was no exception. “My first job in Alaska was washing dishes. Seventeen years later, when I left Skagway, I was on city council, and I was the economic development director. I got to that point by doing just about every job in town.”

Catsi’s career eventually took him to Anchorage, where he led the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference and became intimately acquainted with the challenges of attracting businesses and retaining talent in a state with sparse infrastructure, exorbitant energy costs, and a highly seasonal economy. “Our territory was larger than 39 states.” Catsi said. “We had 54 different communities; we had 29,000 people, and there wasn’t a road between them.”

Still he excelled, going on to serve as the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority’s business development and communications director. Catsi spent nine years with the organization before becoming Tacoma Public Utilities’ economic development manager in April 2019.

Catsi and his wife, Laura Moscatello, had an eye on Tacoma when the position at TPU was announced. While Alaska always will be close to his heart, Catsi said the Puget Sound region has not disappointed. “People talk about Tacoma being ‘Grit City.’ I think that’s part of its appeal. It’s a 21st-century city that still retains that old character about it.”

In an interview with South Sound Business, Catsi spoke about lessons learned practicing economic development in The Last Frontier and his work promoting economic health across the five counties Tacoma Public Utilities serves.

How did your experiences in Alaska’s unique economic climate inform your approach to economic development?

There’s a saying in Alaska: “If you can do economic development there, you can do it anywhere.” While it’s not totally accurate, it does indicate the level of difficulty associated with getting results there. As an economic developer, we didn’t have a lot of tools to work with. The state operates at a different level of development than the rest of the country. The level of work you have to do there is so much higher. Basic things, like getting access, making sure there’s water, making sure there’s affordable energy, making sure people can afford to heat their homes. Those traditional economic development practices, the stuff you learn in the textbooks … we couldn’t apply a lot of those.

Here in the Lower 48, you have roads everywhere, supply chains are accessible year-round, the cost of living is cheaper, the climate is nicer for a lot of people, there’s year-round activity, and there’s a lot of economic-development resources available. I honed my skills in what I would call a famine environment. Now I feel like I’m in a feast environment. I found the transition to be much easier coming from that environment to here, whereas I would have had a much harder time going from here to Alaska.

One of your roles as economic development manager has been to identify improvement opportunities pertaining to utility operations. What improvement projects are underway?

I put together an economic-development strategic plan for TPU last year, and I really focused on two things. One of them was our internal processes — working with our potential clients and our existing clients — and then the external side, working with our franchise cities and our customers and stakeholders outside the organization, especially our economic development partners.

For me, in terms of operations improvement, it’s really focused on making sure our internal processes were clear, navigable, and streamlined so existing, new, and prospective customers can get the information they need. We get a lot of requests for information from prospects. It’s really important for us to have a system in place to get them the information they need to make a location decision in a reasonable amount of time. We’re not the only areas these companies are looking at, so we’re often competing with other communities for them to come here. So the quicker we can get the information, the more complete that information can be, the better chance we have of keeping them interested in our area. The whole site selection process is really a process of elimination, and our goal is to not be eliminated.

What incentives is Tacoma Public Utilities able to offer to regional businesses?

It’s interesting coming to Washington, where there’s this constitutional prohibition of the gifting of public funds for businesses. Unlike many states, here in Washington, we can’t provide cash or property incentives to attract or retain companies. This puts us at a disadvantage in relation to the states that can do that. Even though that happens, we still do bring in businesses to the state.

As a utility, we have a state mandate to assist our residential, commercial, and industrial customers to increase their energy and water use efficiency. We have a rebates program, where when they install equipment that is more efficient than the standard equipment that would traditionally go into their operations, we help offset the difference in the cost.

A great example of this is last year, NewCold opened their super-efficient cold storage facility here in Tacoma, and Tacoma Power wrote a check to them for $1.5 million that actually helped cover the cost of adding the more-efficient equipment than was standard for their facility. So while we can’t actually provide cash incentives, we can offset those costs. We call it an incentive, but it’s really just a rebate system mandated by the state. But it works really well; companies really appreciate it.

Tacoma Public Utilities recently recommitted to ongoing work around racial justice. How does racial equity intersect with the economic development field?

I always believe that the first thing we need to do is acknowledge that there has been a long history of institutional racism and that racism has created disparities in the workforce, housing, generational wealth, education, and health. Those can be unintentionally perpetuated unless we intentionally address them.

When we talk about economic development and we talk about equity, they’re inextricably tied. I serve on the board of the International Economic Development Council. It’s the largest economic development member organization in the world, so it holds great sway on the profession. There was a recognition after the Great Recession as we started to come out of it that not everyone was benefiting from the economic recovery. The data was showing that populations of color, minorities, (and) women were seeing the economic benefits at a much reduced level than the general white population. There was a realization that here we are trying to raise all boats — and yet some of those boats weren’t raising. So we started to look at the issue and really identified diversity, exclusivity, and equity as something the profession as a whole needed to address. As a profession, we needed to do a better job to ensure that everyone was benefiting equally from that economic growth.

That was further exacerbated this year, when we see the health and the economic impacts of the COVID crisis. And then things changed with the killing of George Floyd and the result of Black Lives Matter protests. So we went from the diversity, equity, and inclusivity issue to now focusing on policy development, and encouraging economic development organizations and economic developers themselves to actually implement anti-racist policies to ensure that in the future work that we do, we are raising all boats with that rising tide.

What aspects of economic development do you think are overlooked by the public?

I think one of the things people don’t realize is that 80 percent of an economic developer’s efforts are really spent on retaining the businesses we have. That’s where most of the jobs are generated, and that’s where most of the investment comes from — from businesses that are already here, that want to stay here. That’s where our efforts tend to go. Most people think economic developers are just out there trying to bring new businesses in. While that is part of what we do, the biggest bang for your buck is always keeping what you have and helping them expand.

Tacoma Public Utilities has infrastructure in five counties and partners with agencies from Seattle to Thurston County, and beyond. How do you balance the needs and perspectives of so many stakeholders?

We have a wide range of stakeholders — they include sovereign native tribes, local governments, the County, state and federal agencies, and a whole bunch of others. For each of those, we often have a different business relationship. We don’t just supply power on a retail basis — to others, we supply power on a wholesale basis; with others, we have regulatory relationships. It’s really important for us to be in regular contact with each of them. We feel like our goal is to listen to them; see what their needs are; and determine how we can provide the reliable, affordable utilities services that we have, while at the same time respecting the views and needs of those stakeholders and partners. They’re all different.