Tacoma’s future is coming closer, as the City of Tacoma, Puyallup Tribe, the City of Fife, Pierce County, and the Port negotiate the start of long-term planning for the Tideflats. Business, labor, environmentalists, neighbors, and Native people all have ideas for the best ways to use this land; the planning process is intended to hear from everyone. Not surprisingly, some ideas clash, and a few can’t co-exist. How these different views play out will play a big part in shaping Tacoma’s future.
I’m interested in the process as a Tacoma resident, of course, but I’m also paying attention as a legislator. While the State doesn’t have a formal role in the process, state laws and resources are involved in many ways. The Growth Management Act, for example, provides the context for land use planning. The legislature helps fund roads and other essential infrastructure. And state agencies have responsibilities for shorelines and fish and wildlife. I vote on a lot of issues related to this planning process.
Even so, I don’t claim to understand all the concerns and opportunities involved. It’s pretty complicated in terms of science, economics, law, and politics. Right now, I’m particularly interested in the role of manufacturing in Tacoma’s economic future.
Manufacturing is a type of business in which a raw material – typically vegetable or mineral – is turned into a useable good. Grain is turned into flour, flour is turned into bread. Each step “adds value” – flour is more valuable than grain; bread is more valuable than flour. And because of added value (and not incidentally, the strength of industrial unions), manufacturing jobs tend to pay well.
Some argue that high wages and more stringent environmental laws caused U.S. manufacturers to move to other countries or to automate their factories. Whether that’s true or not, in the past 30 years the number of Americans working in manufacturing fell from 17.5 million to 12.4 million, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s a drop of about 30 percent.
And even with national manufacturing employment at an historic low, the Tacoma area is doing worse. Only five percent of our jobs are in manufacturing, compared with 6.3 percent of jobs across the country.
This is troubling. Manufacturing is one of only a handful of economic sectors that pays well. Software is another; transportation and construction are also on the list. But if factories aren’t making things, there’s less demand for transportation. And if people don’t earn good wages, they don’t buy new houses or shop at new stores.
We’re at a crossroads. Rebuilding American manufacturing is a major topic nationally, and it’s central to the question of Tacoma’s future. At the risk of oversimplification, the choice in the Tideflats planning process is whether to encourage or discourage manufacturing. And, if we encourage manufacturing, what kind should it be? There’s no easy answer.
Manufacturing supporters like the new Manufacturing Industrial Council (led by Meredith Neal), the Chamber of Commerce, and several labor unions make a solid economic argument: Manufacturing is essential to growing Tacoma’s economy. By making things here and selling them at a profit elsewhere, the local economy becomes stronger.
But people are also concerned about the environmental impacts of manufacturing. Most acknowledge the economic growth argument, but some prefer an economy based on “cleaner” products: software; consulting services; tourism; education. Even though Tideflats businesses spend millions of dollars neutralizing negative impact, the manufacturing model calls for low cost raw material sources: mono-culture forests, engineered food crops, cheap mineral extraction, and fuel-intensive transportation.
Still others want a Tacoma that’s more pretty than gritty, more like sophisticated San Francisco than muscular Oakland. For some, manufacturing is Tacoma’s past; arts, culture and an economy built on intellectual products is our future.
This discussion isn’t unique to Tacoma; it’s taking place in cities across the U.S. and around the world. If the Tideflats planning process can unite the community around a shared economic vision, we can have a vibrant, healthy future. But if we remain fractured in our views of the future, if we compete for resources and stymie initiatives, Tacoma risks falling behind the competition for talent, for investment, and for quality of life no matter which of these views you take.
I’ll be watching closely. I encourage you to do the same, and I look forward to working with you on these important questions.
Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.