Lynnette Buffington, 2013 40 Under Forty honoree and Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce membership outreach manager, grew up in the South Sound but has also spent some time all over the map. Recently, we got a chance to talk with her about what she sees around Tacoma's business community from both her work with the Chamber and her window at the Chamber building downtown. We shared some laughs, but also gleaned quite a bit of insight from Buffington's perspective, and now we share that interview here on Everybody's Business.
Describe the atmosphere, the business environment, for the under-40 demographic right now.
I see a lot of engagement of the younger population in the nonprofit sector. They're able to find the complementary organization from their business life to their personal life. It seems to me that, even many of the people in this last 40 Under Forty class, we bump into each other at philanthropic events, on other boards, doing other service-based projects — there's a lot of opportunities there. I think the engagement is reflective of the common core values that many young businesspeople here carry. They have a fond appreciation of their community. Contributing to make things better. Investing their work day — and their home life, even — into bettering Tacoma and Pierce County. That's a trend that is very strong and very visible.
I also see opportunities for startups a lot of places. I think people are finding their passions and aligning it. When I'm promoting our YEA program, our Young Entrepreneurs Academy, I talk about aligning your paycheck with your passion. I see people doing that. They're nimble enough to change at this stage in their life to align whatever their passionate about with their paychecks.
Speaking of which, where are those paychecks coming from? As a staff member at the Chamber of Commerce, where are you seeing the growth of employment for our under-40 demographic?
You know, I can't say for certain who's hiring (young professionals) and who's growing. I don't know that with a lot of confidence. I have a lot of anecdotal feedback from my view: I sit up here and see 11th and Pacific everyday, and I can tell you there's more people downtown everyday. There is a higher level of professionalism in attire everyday downtown. It is getting harder for us to book the larger venues and the smaller venues for our recurring events, because other people are coming in and booking those spaces. I live two blocks from (the Chamber building downtown), and I can tell you parking is getting harder at night. There's a percolation of activity that's happening here that I'm just kind of seeing from my perch. How long the Starbucks line is at 9, how long the Starbucks line is at 3. These are just kind of things I notice that give me the sense that things are thriving right now.
What are your impressions of what's driving that percolation?
I think everybody — the City, the EDB, the Chamber — everybody's doing stuff to make this a healthier business community. There's also an enormous amount of pride in Tacoma, so as a native, born and raised here, there is an ownership, I feel, over this community, and it's impressive to watch so many transplants adopt it as well. I think you take a potential recovering economy, pair that with community and civic pride and you start to get momentum. Even if a company isn't growing, their visibility and their impact may be growing, which may queue them up for growth.
If you could change something that would immediately change the landscape for the under-40 professionals in Tacoma, what would that be?
Walkability and livability of the downtown core. You look at the IGA, the Tacoma Grocer — as a downtown dweller, that's a huge plus. And increasing the diversity you can go for lunch or happy hour or Friday or Saturday nights. I'm on the upper end of 40 Under Forty. (Laughs.) I'm about to age out. There needs to be a diversity between what my interests are in going out and what somebody in their early 20s is looking for. There has to be that, and right now, there may not be a diversity in those choices. During the work week, there absolutely is a diversity, but come Thursday through Saturday night, that diversity isn't as visible.
What's one sector of industry that you feel is on the upswing here in the South Sound?
Wow. That is really hard for me to say, primarily because we (at the Chamber) have close to 1,500 members. Focusing in on an industry is very hard.
Let's put it this way. Is there any particular sector that the Chamber is seeing an uptick in membership?
Sole proprietors, ranging from direct sales to hanging their own shingles as an attorney or a CPA. You see that: people working for themselves. You're seeing those sole proprietors under the age of 45. There's opportunity. They probably at the time of their career they feel confident to step out and do that on their own, or, in the direct sales industry, you're looking for supplemental income. I think people are starting to feel like they have enough expertise, they have confidence in their skills and abilities to market and have a client base, and so they're going out on their own. Not to directly compete with some of the larger firms and organizations, but to provide a different, maybe more personable type of service. It's people with an extreme amount of talent deciding that they want to lead or work for themselves and bringing similarly talented people with them. People feel there's enough opportunity here if it's done right.
Do you think that feeling is justified?
There's plenty of ways to not do it right, but what I'm watching from the sidelines, people are being very deliberate, concerted. They're leveraging their connections. They're collaborative in some regards. There's a desire to be collaborative that's maybe unique to the community. I can't speak for other communities, but I do see that here.
What's one thing you can take from somewhere else you've been that you think our area can learn from?
Hmm…kind of like a wish list for what this place could look like? When I lived in Baltimore, what Baltimore did well, and Baltimore has its faults—
Yeah, we've seen The Wire.
(Laughs.) Yeah, see? But they have two or really three key neighborhoods where young professionals lived, and they really made those incredibly vibrant with their food and beverage industry options, their retail and their recreational living options. Aside from the horrendous, horrendous parking issues, they did a really nice job with that. Tacoma's not far from that in that there's pockets of that everywhere, if you look in our neighborhoods. It's just that our downtown core isn't there yet.
I'm not a retail person, so I don't know what it takes to bring retail downtown. I don't know how much of a game-changer State Farm will be for the food and beverage industry and the retail industry. I can't speak to that yet. I know, as someone who was involved in a nonprofit that had a thrift shop here, we had to shut our doors when Russell (Investments) left. I know the impact it had on our organization. We'll see what happens when that building gets filled up with people again.
And downtown's come so far from when I grew up here. Everything was shuttered, and it was only a financial district that you saw people moving from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. Now, the vibrancy is just so different, so it would be unfair to say that it hasn't come so far. It just needs to keep on pushing.