If I blindfolded you and dropped you at the downtown Tacoma corner of South 17th Street and Pacific Avenue in spring 1988, then removed your blindfold, chances are you would not immediately know where you were.
At the time, Tacoma had no museums there. No University of Washington. No convention center. No Tollefson Plaza. No Marriott. No federal courthouse. No light rail. No I-705 spur. Zero development on the polluted wasteland along the City Waterway, which hadn’t yet received its new moniker, Thea Foss.
Union Station stood empty and derelict with rainwater dripping through its tarnished copper dome.
Most likely, standing around you would be 10 to 20 young men — openly peddling black tar heroin.
Looking north, you’d see a row of low brick buildings known as Tacoma’s seedy underbelly for its pawnshops, taverns, and porn stores. A few months earlier, the City Council voted to remove the historic designation from those buildings so that 14 of the 16 could get bulldozed and replaced by parking lots — in hopes that would discourage ne’er-do-wells from coming downtown. It didn’t work.
The best clue of your whereabouts would come from the sign hanging off a building just down the block: “Tacoma Rescue Mission. Jesus Saves.”
Boy, what a difference 30 years makes.
What sparked it?
The unsung hero of Tacoma’s renaissance came from hosing off pigeon droppings on the sidewalks underneath downtown parking garages, cleaning up after transients who kicked over trash cans in the night, and adding more eyeballs dressed in private security and Tacoma Police uniforms.
All those things sprang from the April 1988 controversial creation of the downtown Business Improvement Area, where property owners paid between 3 cents and 12 cents per square foot into a fund to clean up 80 square blocks.
And no one has watched Tacoma’s transformation more up-close than the BIA’s Employee No. 1, Jim Burgess.
Jim’s dad, Rohn Burgess, as the head of the now-defunct Downtown Tacoma Association, masterminded the BIA as downtown’s best shot at reclaiming its former glory. For nearly two years, Rohn peddled the idea — against some stiff opposition — to convince at least 60 percent of property owners to back it. Finally, in 1988, with 65 percent support, the City Council voted to approve it.
Back then, you’d find Jim early in the mornings spraying sidewalks with a high-pressure hose or with a shovel and broom or eventually riding a mini-streetsweeper. Today, you’ll find Jim, now the working supervisor of the BIAs cleanup team, early in the mornings doing all those same things, plus periodically changing out 144 decorative banners.
“If you talk to the police department, they’ll tell you that, statistically, downtown is the safest place in Tacoma,” Jim said recently. “I’d like to think we’ve had a lot to do with that.”
It wasn’t easy.
The month after creation of the BIA, the Downtown Tacoma Association sent surveys to 14,000 downtown workers. The results led to headlines like, “Women say downtown unsafe.” Threatened by a stranger? Thirty-six percent had been. Victims of theft at work? Twelve percent. Vehicles vandalized? Twelve percent. Seventy-three percent rated the parking garages as unsafe to very unsafe.
One dark morning, Jim, while cleaning the night’s litter from a planter box, felt the massive hand of a massive man grip him solidly by the shoulder.
“That’s my donut,” the man said.
“I had no idea he put his food in the planter box,” Jim recalled.
Some mornings, following nighttime drug sweeps by TPD, the cleanup crews would find rolls of bills — sometimes upwards of $500 — stashed in corners and crevices where the dealers ditched them.
The BIA raised $620,000 that first year and employed 11 security guards, paid the salaries of two police officers, and helped pay for a small TPD substation downtown. It started to pay off right away. So much so that a groundswell of disgruntled property owners who disliked having to pay the BIA fees tried to marshal a new petition drive to disband it but couldn’t get enough signatures.
“The guards have been a big part of it over the years,” Jim said. “Getting people who are a real problem to move along.”
Every 10 years, the BIA requires a renewal to continue. Last year, the property owners not only signed on to continue until 2028; another 44 blocks got added into the BIA boundaries. The projected annual budget has climbed to $1.3 million.
So the next time you enjoy a downtown visit, remember how far Tacoma has come because of the BIA — and if you see Jim Burgess, with his red hair and safety vest driving around on the little, blue sweeper, thank him.