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Tacoma: Big annual “signature” festival — is it one answer to city’s economic woes?

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 11, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
October 11, 2011 5:33 pm

Wanted: A big, annual signature festival that screams Tacoma.

Qualifications: Should be homegrown, able to draw out-of-town tourists and help kick-start a stagnant economy.

Contact: The City of Tacoma’s economic development department.

As part of a larger presentation to the City Council Tuesday, Economic Development Director Ryan Petty unveiled a series of focus areas and ideas that city officials could incorporate into a new vision for growing businesses and creating jobs in Tacoma into the future.

Developed from the feedback of business leaders, merchants, neighborhood groups, nonprofits and others, the discussion provided a list of economic development areas that city stakeholders say they want Tacoma to focus on most – from clarifying its role in fostering business growth, to simply finishing the projects it starts.

The presentation also included several “new ideas” Petty offered to council members for consideration in any new strategy.

One idea, which calls to “co-develop a signature annual festival,” drew the most council reaction – both good and bad.

“I worry a little bit about creating a new (festival) when we could be building what we already have,” Councilwoman Lauren Walker said.

The festival idea was among dozens offered in the second part of Petty’s three-pronged approach toward charting a new economic development course for the city.

The first part, delivered in August, provided members with a detailed overview of existing initiatives. During a final session in November, the council is expected draw upon all it has learned to set a new plan.

“Some of these ideas will be in that strategy,” city spokesman Rob McNair Huff said Tuesday, “and I presume some of them will not.”

Some council members have recently complained that Tacoma lacks a solid economic development vision – a sentiment that has ignited Petty and other staffers on a mission to develop one. On Tuesday, several members praised Petty for his latest stop on the path toward a new vision.

“It has so much hope and direction,” said Councilman Marty Campbell, noting the presentation was “one of the most exiting” he’s seen since joining the council in January 2010.

Using a baseball analogy, Petty detailed a mix of smaller strategies he called “hitting singles,” with grander ideas showing “this community hungers for the big victory, too.”

Ideas discussed Tuesday included establishing an annual entrepreneurial conference, pursuing a “destination retail” program to draw new businesses and promote existing ones and creating and growing a “Tacoma Alumni Association” to network for business opportunities and establish credibility beyond the city.

Petty also suggested any future plan should focus on three key places: the Dome District, the Brewery District and the so-called “Medical Mile” along Martin Luther King Way.

“These three areas have the most job-creation potential,” he said.

Staff should also focus on recruiting new clean water technology industries to Tacoma’s newly designated “Innovation Partnership Zone” planned for the east side of the Foss Waterway, he said.

But Councilman Jake Fey, who largely praised Tuesday’s ideas, noted he still isn’t sure that the envisioned research hub will fly.

“I’m not totally convinced yet that there’s a there there,” Fey said.

Any final strategy should be less “downtown-heavy” and incorporate Tacoma’s neighborhood business districts, Councilman David Boe added.

Meantime, Joe Lonergan said the city’s economic climate could benefit now if council members would simply “get out of the way” of business. He referenced a recent moratorium to halt a Walmart planned for Central Tacoma and a controversial Shoreline Master Program update that has upset industry.

“I’m calling it out,” Lonergan said. “We need to stop.”

Ryan Mello, who spearheaded the box store moratorium, responded long-term quality of life issues outweigh short-sighted economic fixes.

“We’re not Anywhere USA,” Mello said. “… I don’t want to be like Houston, where there’s no zoning and everything goes.”

The idea for a new “signature festival” somewhat stole the show, drawing mixed response. Some — including Walker, who noted the financial struggles that have dogged the Tall Ships Festival — wondered if Tacoma could support yet another big festival.

But Tall Ships – which relies on an outside organization’s endorsement and competes against other cities to stage — isn’t the kind of homegrown event envisioned, Petty said.

What the city needs, Petty said, is “something that can expand our notoriety and reputation.”

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