Do you know how to drive economic development professionals crazy? Ask them to name the No. 1 thing the South Sound region can do to grow its economic prosperity.

“That is a completely unfair question — but a good question,” said Bruce Kendall, who has led the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County since 1999.

The pros go crazy because they can’t name just one. But they tried:

  •  Help small businesses grow and thrive, said Mike Reid, City of Olympia’s economic development director.
  •  Foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, said Michael Cade, executive director of the Thurston Economic Development Council.
  •  Build an outstanding workforce, said Denise Dyer, who just retired as Pierce County’s economic development director after 30 years.
  •  Improve transportation systems, preserve affordable housing, and build more Class A office space, said Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.

Hey; that’s three things, Tom.

Probe a bit more, though, and you will get all of them to agree on one key strategy: Embrace the Base. Primarily Joint Base Lewis-McChord, including Madigan Army Medical Center. But also Camp Murray, the Washington Military Department headquarters, and Naval Sea Systems Command’s Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport.

“When it comes to the military bases, a significant amount of Thurston County’s population is employed either directly by the bases or in businesses supported by the bases,” Reid said.

Pierson has two employees dedicated to JBLM preservation and growth issues, and Cade’s agency runs a statewide procurement and assistance center that connects all manner of businesses with the waves of contracting opportunities at all the military bases.

JBLM also has a history of military innovation that, if leveraged politically, could open the door to massive future economic growth.

In the mid-1980s, the Army opened its High-Tech Test Bed at Fort Lewis, where scientists, engineers, and inventors created and tested funky inventions designed to make infantry forces lighter and quicker on the battlefield.

In 2007, in testimony to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives described a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) innovation underway at Fort Lewis.

DARPA adapted commercial computer game technology to train U.S. warfighters in the unique combat skills they need in an urban environment. Some 400 soldiers a month learned how to recognize, manage, and recover from attacks on their convoys — in a PC-based computer game.

The next big thing? Cybersecurity, and the local groundwork already has been laid.

The Washington National Guard has our state’s cybersecurity unit stationed at Camp Murray. NAVSEA at Keyport operates a Navy cybersecurity unit. Sources indicate the Army could locate a cybersecurity unit at JBLM.

The University of Washington Tacoma’s Institute of Technology already offers two separate cybersecurity master’s degree programs — one geared to the military.

If our region wants to step up to the plate and take a mighty swing at a cybersecurity grand slam, it can and should. Here’s what it would take:

  • Lobby the Legislature in 2019 to double-down on an expansion of the UW Tacoma’s cybersecurity degree program and add significant investment in K-12 STEM programs that prepare students for a cybersecurity pathway.
  • Leverage Sen. Patty Murray’s political clout as a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Defense, Military Construction, and Homeland Security subcommittees to open a West Coast cybersecurity innovation center at JBLM. Also, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer serves on the House Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
  •  Refocus county-based entrepreneurship programs, such as the Thurston County Business & Innovation Center, around helping military personnel who leave the NAVSEA, JBLM, and Washington Military Department cybersecurity services to start their own ventures.
  •  Enlist Sen. Maria Cantwell’s connections on the Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship.
  •  Build on the downtown Tacoma presence of Infoblox — a 120-employee cybersecurity firm that protects a growing number of government and business clients around the world.

With the combined political and business forces in the South Sound, we should take a swing at it — and thank the Russians.

 


Dan Voelpel is a former award-winning business columnist and has observed, written about, and advocated for the South Sound for more than three decades. You can reach him at voice.of.tacoma@gmail.com.