Destination Downtown: Tacoma's past, present and future development

Economic Development Director Juli Wilkerson is excited for the City of Tacoma, and it showed during Wednesday’s presentation at the City Club of Tacoma’s luncheon program.

A crowd of 103 – 86 members and 17 guests – filled the Sheraton Ballroom for Wilkerson’s PowerPoint presentation and speech, “Tacoma’s Success: Looking Back, Moving Ahead.”

Examining the past, present and future, Wilkerson explored the creation of the new Destination Downtown Partnership, a public-private alliance to promote Tacoma’s future development.

The city is in the third year of the 20-year Destination Downtown project, she said.

Today, Tacoma is in the midst of a widely acclaimed renaissance, with numerous construction projects at various stages of completion and many more planned for the future.

Earlier this year, the Museum o f Glass opened, as did Thea’s Landing condominium and apartment complex. The new Tacoma Art Museum is set to open in spring 2003 and the city recently broke ground on the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. In addition, the Tacoma Link light rail system is to be up and running by September 2003.

“I can tell you what a difference a dozen years makes,” Wilkerson said, referring to when she came to Tacoma.

At that time the city was suffering through several problems: suburban flight, the decay of a number of downtown buildings, a high crime rate, Superfund issues and virtually no business invest-ment.

“We were at a crossroads,” Wilkerson stated.

Things began to turn around, she said, when citizens and the city government began to focus on developing the Thea Foss Waterway and downtown.

Wilkerson cited the establishment of the University of Washington Tacoma in 1990 and the reopening of historic Union Station in 1992 as the first visible signs of development.

Today, the rapidly growing University of Washington Tacoma campus is located in renovated historic warehouse buildings in the city’s Union Station District.

Union Station was reopened as a federal courthouse and a public display area following $57 million worth of renovations that began in 1988.

According to Wilkerson, the number of business districts in the city has grown from six to 12 and eight neighborhood districts were formed 10 years ago.

“Look at the difference today,” Wilkerson said. “It’s flourishing.”

Construction activity in Tacoma – as measured in terms of permit values – is up, she said, to $300 million in 2001. That number is expected to be higher for this year, she noted.

According to Arizona State University’s “Blue Chip Job Growth Report,” from Oct. 2001 to Oct. 2002, Tacoma gained 4,600 jobs, ranking 19th out of 292 cities in the report.

“So, as you can see, we’ve come a long way,” Wilkerson beamed.

She then asked, “So, why is all of this happening in Tacoma?”

It’s happening for a variety of reasons, including major investments in capital projects; the city’s “Wired Tacoma” ad campaign and fiber-optic network, Click!; Tacoma’s eight-week guaranteed permitting process; streamlined zoning codes; and Destination Downtown.

Destination Downtown went into effect Jan. 10, 2000. The document contains general and district policies divided into eight categories: housing, marketing and incentives, development and uses, design guidelines, historic preservation, parks and open spaces, mobility and parking and streetscape.

“We’ve changed our reputation across the nation,” Wilkerson said, noting the positive press Tacoma has received over the last year from national and international media.

Looking to the future, Wilkerson said the plan is to keep Tacoma’s momentum going by protecting and leveraging investments – in other words, finishing what it starts; developing and implementing a streetscape plan, essentially landscaping for streets; and marketing Tacoma, including another “Wired City” promotion designed to entice Seattle metro-area businesses to move or expand to Tacoma that will start in February.

“Be proud – we’ve got a great product here,” Wilkerson said of Tacoma.