Steph Farber remembers nervously walking to his car in the 1970s and early ’80s after working late into December nights in his downtown Tacoma jewelry store to fulfill holiday orders.

“I never was altogether sure I’d make it to my car because there were drug gangs, and it was not a good place to be,” remembered Farber, who co-owns LeRoy Jewelers on Broadway, where he and his wife, Phyllis Harrison, design and make fine jewelry.

Like the worn work bench where he practices his craft, Farber, whose father started the store in 1941, has seen a lot over his decades downtown. His was the only store on the Broadway block during that period in the mid-1970s and early ’80s, but when a former theater just down the street was renovated and reopened in 1983 as the Pantages Theater, everything changed. For Farber, that was the start of Tacoma’s renaissance.

“Those women who started the Pantages, once it opened, there were 1,170 blue-haired ladies who would leave the theater at 10 o’clock when a show was over, and they were the ones who chased off the drug dealers; I mean, just their presence chased them off,” Farber said. “And that was the seed that then made (it) safe again for (the) community to gather. And a community has to have a place to gather.”

When people saw the Pantages could be a draw and citizens could make a difference, an effort to save Union Station followed, he noted.

The last train left the station in 1984 and the building fell into disrepair, followed by private and public efforts to save it, and eventually a proposal to convert it into a federal courthouse. In 1987, Congress OK’d leasing the station for 35 years; restoration and an addition followed in the early 1990s; and the courts opened in 1992.

At that same time, the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) campus was launching. It later moved into its permanent space in 1997, and museums began to cluster around Union Station.

“So, there’s been a gradual movement,” Farber said.

A significant community addition occurred as condominiums and apartments began to get built before the Great Recession in 2008, giving people a place to live downtown. While the recession slowed that movement, it has returned, part of a broader national trend of people increasingly moving to city centers.

“People are now living downtown, shopping downtown, working downtown, going to the university downtown,” Farber said. “The other thing that has happened, of course, is pressure from the north, where you can get a nice job and buy a place to live in Seattle for a stupid amount of money — and it will be a little place to live — or you can move down here to a remarkable house, with a remarkable view, in a remarkable community for much, much less,” building on what Tacoma’s long enjoyed.

While some agree Tacoma is experiencing a renaissance today, Farber said a renaissance has been happening for a long time, that what’s occurring today seems like natural growth that the outside world is now discovering.

No matter how one might classify what’s happening in Tacoma, the dawn of the new decade is full of promise for the city, according to business and academic observers.

That doesn’t mean everything’s perfect. There’s concern about housing availability and affordability, and traffic and transportation, and not losing the city’s character as its renaissance/growth unfolds. A number of buildings remain empty downtown, reflecting what one business owner called a slow-moving revival. Some business owners downtown complain, too, of parking issues that reduce options for customers.

But overall, there’s a sense that the City of Destiny is, finally, on a sustained rise.

Careful Planning Called For

Steph Farber, co-owner of LeRoy Jewelers; Photo by Jeff Hobson

“The future is bright, but it requires care,” said Ali Modarres, an expert on the city and director of urban studies at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

Tacoma needs to plan now for an inclusive future, he said.

“We need to attract skill without forgetting our current residents,” Modarres continued. “We need to build more housing, without displacing people who live here. Living wages and attainable housing should be part of our success story. Tacoma’s renaissance will not resonate well if equity is forgotten. Having said that, there is no doubt in my mind that Tacoma has just begun its economic ascendance.”

Modarres cautioned: “Let’s make sure that the shining lights of prosperity will not blind us and make us forget what it means to be a city for everyone.”

Tacoma’s ascendance comprises many parts, some new, some decades old, including major public and private investments in everything from the arts to academia, housing to industry. It includes boot-strapping entrepreneurs seeing promise where there was once neglect, breathing new life into moribund buildings and neighborhoods.

Emerging throughout Tacoma is a diverse tapestry of historic and modern, refurbished and brand new. There’s a feeling of eclectic coolness mixed with gritty history and realness, a sense of emergence, that this isn’t just a place to drive through, but it’s one to stop and explore. It’s seen as more affordable than Seattle (for now), less congested, full of places to discover, and a place to be. One example: Seattle restaurateurs picking Tacoma to expand to in recent years.

As Tacoma hotelier Tom Pavlik described Tacoma’s destination status in a recent South Sound Business story, “Our hidden gem has been discovered.”

Mike Runion, co-owner of 7 Seas Brewing, which opened in 2016 in the Brewery District near the UWT campus, said there were times when a renaissance felt near but didn’t materialize. Not anymore. He agreed a renaissance is underway, and the secret is out.

“The challenge is, ‘How do you grow the right way?’” he said, and not ruin the city’s character. “You need to make sure you’re … paying attention to all of the variables so that one piece doesn’t grow and you don’t ignore traffic, or housing, to make sure it’s smart growth that can be balanced.”

He sees the city at a crossroads as it charts its future and continues to add luster to its shine. It’s already recognized as a destination with amenities that include museums, arts and culture, a university, the restaurant and bar scene, and the neighborhoods, Runion said. It’s getting attention in the media, often mentioned in the same breath as Seattle or Portland.

“It’s the right time for Tacoma,” he said. “And then when you add in some challenges of places like Seattle on top of that, it’s the right collection of variables to make it that time: the quality of life, the affordability at the moment, which, the cat’s out of the bag, that’s changing quickly … but there’s a grit and an authenticity to the city that’s still real.”

Runion wasn’t naïve thinking establishing his business downtown would be easy or flawless, but he said the city has been great to work with.

“I think they are incentivized to get the right businesses here, not just big national players, but homegrown businesses that are growing here within the community and within the region,” he said, thrilled to see activity developing around him in a formerly underutilized area. He cited housing to complement UWT, the restaurant and nightlife scene, the area’s walkability, and adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

“I think the same is happening in the (Tacoma) Dome District” and elsewhere in town, like the Proctor and Stadium districts, he said. There’s available real estate — old warehouses, for example, that can be better used and that have significant character, he added, noting the city’s willingness to rehab them, as has occurred in the Brewery District, rather than demolish everything for new towers. “Bringing brewing back to that district was a key piece for us moving here and, you know, a dream come true to be able to realize that history.”

Now is the time for city leaders to plan for the growth that’s coming, not reacting to it, UWT’s Modarres said. The city can think about the housing it wants, the types of employment centers to attract, and how to connect transportation systems to those areas. The housing profile should match the wage profile for existing and future workers, something the entire South Sound, not just Tacoma, should be thinking about, he said.

With Tacoma early in its renaissance, according to Modarres, the city also has an opportunity to establish the character it wants for economic development, as opposed to having a character imposed upon it. He would like to see a mix of small and midsize innovation companies, particularly in biomed, which would converge nicely with existing healthcare anchors and emerging tech companies. 

It’s also important not to ignore Tacoma’s industrial character, he said, seeing opportunities for production facilities for future industries that are green and nonpolluting. With the Port of Tacoma, varied land-use zones, and mix of white- and blue-collar workers, the city has a good mixture of assets for expanding production facilities, he said, calling for a blending of new and existing industries and workers, not displacement.

New industries should add to the economy, not replace employment and force people out, he said, adding they should bring jobs for skills that are transferrable locally or fillable by the pipeline of new workers coming out of area schools. There’s a good pipeline of skilled workers for many industries between UWT, University of Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran University, community and technical colleges, and others, he added.

“The part that we can’t lose is the character of this area, which has production built into its fabric,” Modarres said. “We can’t really be looking to a future where all the producing industries are pushed out.”

Community Engagement Vital

Mike Runion, co-owner of 7 Seas Brewing; Photo by Jeff Hobson

As Tacoma looks ahead and shapes its future, it’s important to look at some of the many sparks over the years that kindled the renaissance. Establishment of UWT is universally considered a watershed event.

“It was the business community that drove that effort and the civic community joined in enthusiastically, but it started with the business community saying, ‘We need a university,’” when the state was considering campus expansions, said Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County. He listed UWT and the saving of the Pantages as two keys to Tacoma’s renaissance.

“You could make the case that if we had let the Pantages go to the wrecking ball or just fall in on itself that there just would not have been the spur that it provided to galvanize the community around the arts,” he said, praising unelected civic leaders, mostly women, like Dawn Lucien and Babe Lehrer, for their commitment to saving theaters and promoting performing arts downtown.

Higher education and the arts came together for different reasons around the same time, “So I think an argument can be made that that was the start of the modern renaissance in Tacoma,” Kendall said.

Other kindling includes the opening of the Tacoma Dome in 1983, for which Tacomans agreed to help pay, and $30 million-plus in improvements to the Dome in 2018.

“I think there’s recognition that if we invest heavily in our public assets, it draws more people to the region and more people want to be here,” said David Schroedel, vice president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and executive director of the Downtown Tacoma Partnership, which is managed by the Chamber.

Sound Transit’s Tacoma Link rail line is important, too, in linking those assets, connecting the Dome to downtown and the Theater District, and, by 2022, to the Stadium and Hilltop districts. The partnership has been writing a check to Sound Transit in recent years to allow free ridership from the Dome to downtown, a welcoming amenity for locals and visitors, Schroedel said.

The partnership, formerly known as the Business Improvement Area, is entering its 32nd year acting on its motto of a safe, clean, welcoming downtown, where property owners in about a 120-block area in 2018 approved another 10-year assessment to fund the efforts, which includes a 24/7 safety team on foot and bike; a daily clean team that sweeps downtown streets, removes graffiti, and pressure-washes sidewalks; and a welcoming team whose work includes installing pole banners and underwriting free rail transit. New in 2019, a retail advocate was hired to work with retailers downtown and recruit new ones, said Schroedel, who placed Tacoma in the midst of a renaissance, with more to come.

“We’re going to see a lot over the next five, 10, 20 years to continue to advance it,” he said. “But it’s always tough to tell, until you’re in hindsight, exactly what all has been accomplished.”

John Korsmo, the owner of Korsmo Construction, who grew up in the family business that began in 1948, likes what he sees in Tacoma, where the company has had a hand in Tacoma’s renaissance through renovation projects like the Rhein Haus German restaurant in the Stadium District, work on the Pantages, and UWT’s Tioga Library and Russell T. Joy buildings. He sees a sustainable run for the renaissance.

“I just think there’s some good things happening, and I think long-term is going to continue to grow at a nice pace,” and provide for Tacoma’s communities, Korsmo said, praising the work and cooperation of business, government, and nonprofit leaders. “It’s kind of like there’s been a few sparks, but now the fire’s caught finally, and I … really feel like it’s not going to be five years and out. I really feel it’s going to be a slow burn that’s just going to continue to keep the fire lit and keep things going here for Tacoma.”

Room for Improvement

UW Tacoma’s Ali Modarres; Photo by Jeff Hobson

Tammy Radford, who has co-owned The American Art Co., a gallery and frame shop on Broadway, for the last 15 years of the store’s 40-plus years at the location, would like to think the city’s in a renaissance.

“It’s just going at a snail’s pace,” Radford said, citing empty buildings remaining downtown. “It’s great down in Ruston, down to the waterfront. They’re doing all sorts of stuff down there, and it’s fabulous. But I don’t think it’s great up here.”

She would like to see more retail business downtown and said the city has so much potential. But her main focus lately has been the lack of turnover of on-street parking spaces for customers along her strip of Broadway.

Metered parking is $2 for two hours or free all day with a disabled parking placard, and a city official said that stretch of Broadway is a “hot spot” for placard abuse: A December 2018 sting operation found that 37 percent of people using the placards did not have the proper ID to match them. Placard misuse is not a problem everywhere downtown, but misuse in a few hot spots typically runs about 30 to 40 percent, said Eric Huseby, parking services manager for the city.

Enforcement is difficult, Huseby said, but he expects it should ramp up later this year with the expected hiring of two additional staffers. Also, the city’s Parking Technical Advisory Group, comprising downtown stakeholders, is expected to take up the placard issue sometime this year, weighing in on whether the current city stance of allowing all-day parking is appropriate or whether to mirror the state-mandated minimum of four hours of free parking, Huseby said.

Industries to Watch

Kendall and Schroedel see multiple opportunities on the horizon as the renaissance continues to warm.

Kendall said sectors leading the current phase of the renaissance are advanced manufacturing and technology, the latter being far smaller but growing, with companies like Infoblox, Topia Technology, and Accumula.

In advanced manufacturing, the aerospace supply chain has grown dramatically in the greater Tacoma region since the dawn of this renaissance, he said, citing companies like Tool Gauge, GKN Aerospace, Mitsui-Soko (U.S.A.) Inc., all of which can tap the region’s talent pipeline.

Not forgotten is international trade, a key part of Tacoma’s economy since its founding that continues to thrive, Kendall said.

“We’ve been a major global distribution hub … more than 100 years … and that continues to this day,” he said. “Logistics, trade, distribution — all that stuff is booming right now and it’s had ups and downs with recessions, … but we’ve never lost our place in the global economy that’s here because of the Port of Tacoma.”

Looking ahead to possible growth sectors in technology, Kendall said a good case could be made that the region can develop into a global center for cybersecurity and information assurance, with companies in that field already here and deep public-sector investments through sites like Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).

This could become a region in the world where people go to solve and deal with cybersecurity issues — an area of technology to develop, he said.

Schroedel said JBLM is a huge part of the area economy and will continue to be, along with the port, including export logistics and heavy and light manufacturing.

“I think as our economy evolves, it will continue to be driven by what’s going on in the port and at JBLM, but those sectors will continue to change over time,” Schroedel said.

Tacoma’s shipping logistics attracted NewCold, a high-tech, cold warehouse, he said.

Advances in automation, robotics, and even warehouse insulation, “and how we manage warehouse spaces like that will continue to drive what we’re doing here in Pierce County, but it’s taking these new technologies and applying them to a lot of the existing industries that we have today,” Schroedel said.

UWT’s Modarres said that, if growth is balanced, there would be a good mix of tech, non-tech, and production.

“You’re going to see some excitement in the next decade; in other words, the level of investment by 2025 will be quite obvious to everybody,” he predicted. “By 2025, we should see significant changes in the region. By 2030, we will get to that balance point I think … (and) we would be in a position to sort of think about where we are and strategically decide how we want to go to the next steps of the growth.”

Because industry moves faster than government, he reiterated the importance of government planning now.

“This is the moment to make a decision,” UWT’s Modarres said. “It’s like right before you go to college; you have to decide what you want to do. If you don’t, you may meander and meander, and if you’re lucky you will find your way through it. If you’re not lucky, it’s not going to be a pretty scene. We’ve seen enough cities go through that problem that we don’t need to replicate that. We don’t need to be in the same spot 20 years from now saying, ‘We wish we had thought about it.’”