Tacomans talk retail at City Center Luncheon

Developers, business owners and others turn out for the first-time event at the Rhodes Center.

Retail was the focus of Friday’s inaugural City Center Luncheon, a Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber-sponsored event at the Rhodes Center.

With Tacoma’s downtown enjoying an astounding rebirth, developers, business owners and others turned out to enjoy a buffet lunch, network and explore the contours of the city.

“I’m really excited that the Chamber is going to be making this a quarterly event,” said Tacoma City Councilmember-elect Julie Anderson, who emceed the event.

And she was not alone. “Gordon Thomas Honeywell Malanca Peterson & Daheim is happy to sponsor this event and learn more about downtown Tacoma,” said Linda Thomas, executive director of the law firm that was the spotlighted sponsor of the first-time event.

The featured speaker was Paula Rees, president of Maestri Design, Inc., a Seattle-based consulting firm that recently conducted a detailed study that yielded several recommendations for improving Tacoma’s downtown retail environment.

“It’s been really exciting working with the City of Tacoma on what’s going on,” Rees said, while detailing the various manifestations of retail – including e-tail, strip malls, big-box stores, department stores, malls and main street-type establishments. “Retail is very flexible.”

She sized up the strengths and weaknesses of Tacoma and provided several suggestions for producing a more favorable retail atmosphere.

“What we discovered is Tacoma grows on you,” the nationally-known retail consultant noted, pointing out some of the city’s attractions such as the Theater District and Antique Row, Union Station and the Thea Foss Waterway.

On the other hand, she said, “A visitor’s first impression is concrete.”

She also said many of Tacoma’s stores have no identity – that is they are hidden and flat. She also complained of business hours “being all over the map” and that many shops are closed on weekends.

Such features could result in a loss of community, Rees warned. “People are watching ‘Friends’ instead of being friends,” she said.

Still, her overall assessment was positive, with Rees saying she believed that downtown could accommodate as much as 225,000 square feet of additional retail activity to meet current demand.

Demand for downtown retailers, she said, is coming from office workers, a growing number of downtown residents and visitors from surrounding neighborhoods.

Rees presented several recommendations for improving upon the already credible stable of retail shops in downtown Tacoma:

– Consolidate downtown retailers into clusters, no larger than four blocks long, and encourage retailers to locate there;

– Develop consistent identities for retail clusters, and use consistent place names on transit stops, maps and marketing materials, among other things;

– Devote more money and programs -such as security patrols, trash pick up and community events – to retail clusters;

– Re-examine regulations that require retail space in new buildings, and give developers the option of temporarily using new retail space for other things, such as offices or housing;

– Rationalize signage and improve wayfaring to help shoppers navigate downtown and find retail locations, in addition to better signs to direct motorists to parking garages and lots, as well as more varied streetscaping;

– Develop a parking program that encourages shopping and discourages “chain” parking. This includes paying for parking. (A forum on parking has been set for Wednesday, Dec. 3, beginning at 8 a.m. in the Simpson Community Room in the Chamber’s offices.)

– Adopt a more confident and original marketing stance, embracing the vision of a downtown retail environment that features small, unique businesses; and

– Help downtown entrepreneurs by offering incentives like grants for downtown retail projects and low-interest loans to fix up storefronts.

Describing Tacoma as “happening” at various times in history – while showing old photographs of the city as part of her computer presentation – Rees was confident the City of Destiny (or City of Destinations, as she put it) could attract infill.

“We are suggesting you enhance Tacoma’s untapped retail potential,” she said.

Other happenings at the City Center Luncheon were as follows:

– Cary Badger, chief marketing officer for Regence BlueShield, and George Cargill, a vice president with TriWest Healthcare Alliance, were on hand to announce an office expansion of Regence Blue Shield in Tacoma.

This means 300 more employees will be coming to Tacoma to join the 550 that are already there now, Badger said.

A statement by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) read to the audience praised the office expansion as proof of interest in Tacoma, as well as the jobs it will bring.

The new alliance will help provide military health care plans to 330,000 beneficiaries in Washington, he said.

“I’m excited to be here,” Cargill said. “I’m exploring how downtown works.”

– Judee Encinias of the Local Development Council was on hand to speak about security.

She praised members of the Tacoma Police Department, as well as officers of the BIA (Business Improvement Area) bike patrol.

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