Survey highlights downtown challenges, opportunities

Downtown Tacoma offers an attractive environment for entrepreneurs, and a swift permitting process for new development. But it lacks the foot traffic needed by small-business owners, and is saddled by uncertainty over Russell Investment’s future in the area, which hinders new high-rise construction.
Those are just some of the findings of a recent survey of downtown residents and workers. The six-week study, conducted by Dallas, Tex.-based Angelou Economics, tapped the opinions of 123 downtown workers, and 619 downtown residents as part of a long-term effort to guide economic development in the central business district.
According to the survey, downtown Tacoma is home to 43,482 employees (approximately 38 percent of the city’s total employment picture); the health services industry, with 14,000 employees, is the largest downtown employer; and downtown employment produces a ripple effect generating nearly $5 billion in economic output, 40,000 jobs, and $1.9 billion in labor income citywide.
Angelou Economics and the City still have more work to do on the study, including analyzing and identifying downtown’s target sector, and creating a strategic plan. The consultant is expected to make a follow-up presentation later this year.
Still, it’s one too many studies for Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma.
“We’ve had countless studies,” said Baarsma. “Quite candidly, I don’t know how many [of these studies] I’ve been through. Where have we gone wrong? What is the difference with this effort, and how do we make progress? I’ve seen this before.” The mayor pointed to several downtown additions in recent years — University of Washington Tacoma, Foss Waterway development, and two museums — and noted all were individually project-based and not linked to surveys or studies.
Ryan Petty, the city’s Community and Economic Development Department director, said this survey will be used to update the city’s downtown comprehensive plan. “We feel a strong need to ground that in economics,” said Petty.
Councilmember Rick Talbert agreed there have been many studies, but added, “We really need this vision and planning. This is now the next step for us.”
For the complete survey and presentation, visit .

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Here are some highlights from the market assessment section of the survey:

I. Downtown Business Climate
Assets and opportunities
— Good reputation as an attractive place for
— Excellent regional reputation for permitting process
— A growing population and labor force in Downtown Tacoma
— Lower than average business costs
— Uncertainty surrounding Russell Investments long-term plans in downtown Tacoma limits investors’ confidence
— Lack of foot traffic in the downtown core inhibits the ability of certain service-based businesses to prosper and thrive

II. Quality of Downtown Environment
Assets and opportunities
— Waterfront setting and views
— A vibrant, growing college district
— Wonderful historic building stock
— Relatively affordable housing and strong incentives for multi-family housing
— Tacoma Dome attracts hundreds of events every year
— Perception of high crime rates
— Limited physical connectivity
— Imbalance in housing types, and development pressures threaten long-time residents
— Poor signage and streetscape (landscaping, sidewalks, trees, lighting)
— Limited retail and entertainment opportunities downtown reduces its vibrancy

III. Downtown Real Estate and Infrastructure
Assets and opportunities
— Competitive lease rates compared to neighboring Central Business Districts
— The City controls several parcels of land downtown and can shape the redevelopment vision
— Downtown offers a diverse selection of historic and new building spaces
— Largest municipally-owned telecommunications network in the nation
— Convenient access to Sea-Tac airport
— Port of Tacoma
— Abundance of surface parking lots offers a development opportunity
— Low vacancy rates in Class A office space and the lack of speculative Class A buildings provides little opportunity to recruit major employers or offer space to expanding, existing employers
— Lease rates in Downtown Tacoma are lower than surrounding communities, but construction costs are just as high
— The availability, convenience, and price of parking are a deterrent to investment
— Key underutilized buildings and sites do not make a positive impression for potential investors
— Small lot sizes make development of large parcels more difficult
— Shovel-ready product limited