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Downtown Puyallup and Tacoma’s Tideflats both need well considered development plans

The city of Puyallup has a new economic development manager. The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has a vacancy to fill the job of director of its Manufacturing Industrial Council. The connection between those two jobs goes well beyond the fact that it’s the same woman leaving one to take the other.

Both jobs have as their primary focus, and are part of a long-running communitywide discussion, some big next-decade questions about what sort of economy we can build locally, what sort of jobs can be generated for people who live here and what sort of opportunities there are for Puyallup, Tacoma and other cities in Pierce County beyond being bedroom communities for Seattle, Bellevue and environs.

Meredith Neal’s appointment to the economic-development post has been approved by City Council, and her core focus this year, according to a statement from the city, “will be implementing identified strategies for Puyallup’s Downtown Economic Development Plan. The plan addresses the reuse of buildings, development feasibility, pedestrian walkability, and forging a strong downtown identity with the goal of offering valued experiences for residents and visitors.”

That development plan, presented last summer, looks familiar to anyone who has watched the trends around the country as cities of all sizes contemplate what they can do with central business districts, if they’re fortunate enough to still have one (and Puyallup still does).

Working against those efforts are decades-long trends of seeing retail, a mainstay of those business districts, moving to suburban shopping centers lining major arterials and to large regional malls like South Hill. The more recent challenge has been trying to rely on retailing downtown or in the ‘burbs with more sales going online.

It’s not a hopeless cause. Not all retailing can be done online, nor does everyone want to. Small, local, independent businesses that can differentiate themselves from online and chain stores also are the kinds of retailers that are being priced out of places like Seattle, can afford space in smaller downtowns like Puyallup and might draw customers to such venues.

The downtown Puyallup strategic plan has seven components — provide business support, promote building reuse, improve development feasibility, support residential development, improve walkability, increase connectivity and create a strong downtown identity and great experiences for residents and visitors. It also hopes to leverage a strategy much in vogue and widely in use in this region, that of transit-oriented development around light-rail and commuter-rail stations.

“Downtown Puyallup has the potential to be a compact, mixed-use, highly walkable place that takes advantage of being within a five-minute walk of major transit,” the report contends. “This pattern of transit-oriented development (TOD) can build on Downtown’s assets such as its existing stock of smaller-scale buildings, high quality public open spaces, and robust public art program.”

How Puyallup makes that happen in a way that fits with how people actually live their lives these days (everyone claims to love the modern model of high density and low ownership, until it’s time to haul a week’s worth of groceries home on a cold rainy night,or get the kids from school to soccer practice), and in a way that doesn’t look like every other town, will be Neal’s challenge.

The plan is squishy on the details of where these new residents, or the existing ones, are going to work. Transit-oriented development presumes that many of them will be packed on buses and trains for export to jobs up north. The city already has running debates over land-use policies for former agricultural properties. Warehouses? Tech offices? Something else? One more challenge for the new economic-development manager to gnaw on.

One place workers might go is the Tacoma Tideflats, this region’s great manufacturing/industrial/trade/maritime center and the focus of Neal’s former posting at the chamber.

The chamber launched the Manufacturing Industrial Council in mid-2018 to make sure the sector’s voice was heard when the official debate began over planning for the future of the Tideflats.

The environmental and land-use fights as evidenced in the liquid-methanol plant (canceled) and the LNG ship-fuel-and-storage facility (under construction, but the permitting battles continue) aren’t going to get easier as competing uses such as residential squeeze in. There isn’t going to be any unanimity about what the Tideflats can and should be, but if businesses have a sense that operating there isn’t worth the expense or hassle, never mind considering expanding or moving into the area, they won’t. Not only will manufacturing and industrial jobs not grow, that employment base will erode over time.

Making the decision about whether manufacturing and industry are part of the region’s future is up to the community and governmental planners and policymakers. Making industry’s case that manufacturing and industry still have a place and an important contribution to make to employment will be the job of whoever takes over directorship of the council.

Feel like that’s an argument worth making? There might just be a job opportunity for you.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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