Tacoma’s economic future

Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-27

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.

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  1. The environmentalists of Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe aren’t against manufacturing in the port… it’s the petro-chemical (oil, gas, methanol, LNG, etc.) industries they are opposed to. The line being drawn is on the fossil fuel industries, not manufacturing or shipping.

  2. … and it is important to remember that long before it became corporately known as the Port of Tacoma it was (and still is) the Estuary of the Puyallup River and the Puyallup People. To have vision that is sustainable we must take into account the irreplaceable ecological importance of our air, water and native habitat. If we focus simply on money, we all, as a community, lose.

  3. I can recommend several critical issues that didn’t make it into your op-ed: 1) The Puyallup Tribe; 2) Puyallup River Estuary; 3) Concerns and issues of disconnected City of Tacoma residents in Northeast Tacoma who do not have a voice in the process but are most impacted by Port of Tacoma activities and traffic; 4) Protecting the hundreds of millions of dollars invested to date to protect the Superfund Cleanup in Commencement Bay and surrounding uplands, and, last but far from least; 5) why was PSE allowed to continue construction of its LNG plant although all permits had not been issued? Feel free to reach out to these parties if you wish to educate yourself.

  4. This “manufacturing council” is simply a new incarnation of the same old unelected folks at pro-trump chamber, edb and south sound proud operating out of tnt headquarters. Good ol’ boys like Kendall at edb, Pierson at the chamber and Zeek at tnt have been “in charge” while losing employers like Russel, DaVita and StateFarm, all while throwing all their might behind failed methanol, controversial polluting LNG, Westrock who is burning plastics to generate electricity for Sacramento and other environmentally devastating petrochemical industries and oil refining. These same folks should never be in charge of manufacturing in Tacoma. We cannot make the same mistakes over and over again and hope for a better outcome. New, creative leadership is needed to make a positive difference, if we want to avoid more environmental devastation and $ millions and millions more in clean-up costs Tacoma residents continually have to pay for.
    The Puyallup Tribe had been managing a thriving and sustainable economy on these waters for millennia, until manifest destiny stole the land and just about totally devastated the entire bay. Let’s look to indigenous people for true leadership, not the ones who plunder and sell our natural resources and devastate/pollute the area for quick short term profits for the few.

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