Richard Florida. Screenshot from event.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board held its annual meeting Wednesday, uniting business and civic leaders regionwide in a virtual format.

EDB Chair Herb Simon kicked things off by reminding attendees of the organization’s mission to grow high wage jobs in Pierce County — an undertaking, he said, that hasn’t been diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic. Simon cited a Nov. 16 vote by the Tacoma City Council to amend and adopt Tideflats and Industrial Land Use Regulations as an example of this mission in action.

“The new regulations,” Simon told the virtual audience, “provide a roadmap for environmentally sensitive business development in the Port area.”

Board President and CEO Bruce Kendall took the screen next, noting several 2020 successes from the EDB’s annual report. Among other achievements and innovations, Kendall spoke of the organization’s participation in the Washington Small Business Emergency Grant Program, its partnership with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber to run 100 business information webinars (attended by an average audience of 120), and its launch of a new capital campaign that hit within 93 percent of its goal.

Kendall then kicked the mic over to special guest Rachel Askew. Askew is the founder and head coach at NEXT, a South Sound-based organizational culture consulting firm. Askew also is a public speaker on diversity, equity, and inclusion work and is one of the architects behind the newly developed Pierce County Business Accelerator, where she serves as assistant director.

The University of Puget Sound grad reminisced about attending previous iterations of the board’s annual meeting as a student before launching into the impact of the business accelerator.

“So right now, we've just wrapped up two cohorts in Tacoma, we've got an active cohort in Lakewood, and our hope is to expand to Puyallup and East Pierce County in this next season of cohorts as we expand,” she said, adding that the program has been presented in three different languages and graduated 36 entrepreneurs to date.

When asked how companies — or even cities — can begin equitable work, Askew said defining goals and staying “culturally relevant” is paramount.

“I think intention — and what your agenda is — is really important to define on the front end If the audience for your accelerator is going to be people of color,” she said. “If that's the investment you want to make, if that's a practice of equity that you want to put into play in your city, my very first recommendation is to always start with, ‘Nothing for us without us.’”

Keynote speaker Richard Florida followed Askew after a brief introduction by EDB Vice Chair Brian Marlow.

Florida, a renowned urbanist, is known as a bestselling author (whose works include Who’s Your City, The Great Reset, The New Urban Crisis, and others), journalist, and founder of the global advisory services firm Creative Class Group. Recently, Florida’s work has centered around the possible future of cities and metro areas in an eventual post-COVID world, which was the topic of his virtual keynote.

Florida was quick to tell the audience that he’s not a futurist.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he joked. However, he has been an urbanist for close to four decades.

“I spent a lot of time going back and looking at the history of pandemics how they reshape cities, what they've done to cities, how people have moved or migrated, and I think it's led to some pretty interesting Insights,” he said. “We can begin now to see pretty clearly the contours of a post-pandemic geography.”

When it comes to reshaping cities, Florida explained, there are two factors at play: push factors and pull factors. These factors are especially prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter was seen earlier in the pandemic as college students moved back home, remote workers sought wide-open spaces, and families expanded. The former represents young people — ages 25 to 34 — who are moving into urban areas to capitalize on the bouncing back of economic activity as things move toward a new normal.

On average, more than 75 percent of these moves have been within the same county. Eighty-five percent have happened in the same metro area.

So, what does Florida predict for metro areas like ours?

For one, he doesn’t see remote work going away any time soon. In fact, Florida recommends the addition of coworking spaces in suburban areas to cut down on commute time — an average of four hours and 15 minutes per day — and lessen climate change impact. Offices and coworking spaces would no longer be places to work, but occasional places to connect and collaborate with colleagues. 

“A day in the office isn’t a day in the office — it’s like a local business trip,” Florida explained.

To facilitate this, Florida sees central business district high-rise office buildings being converted to residential apartments while more homes are being built or marketed with dedicated video teleconferencing rooms.

This is not a one-size-fits-all situation, though, Florida added.

“It's different in Tacoma-Pierce County than it is in Pittsburgh. It's different in Milwaukee than it is in Detroit. It's different in Bentonville, Arkansas, than it is in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I could go on,” Florida said. “But they all share a similar element in that they're up from the bottom, ground level, efforts to bring together public and private sectors to civic and academic communities to rebuild our communities. … This gives us a once-in-a-century opportunity to really — for the first and greatest time in my life — to reimagine and build better communities and better workplaces.”

To close the annual event, Simon and Marlow returned to announce the board’s Excellent 10 Awards — for outstanding economic development projects over the last 365 days — and its coveted Golden Shovel Award.

Excellent 10 Awards

  • Marriott Tacoma Downtown Hotel
  • Public Partners Support for Business
  • Pierce County, Port of Tacoma, and City of Tacoma
  • Pierce Transit
  • Retail & Restaurant Resiliency
  • TPU and PSE Business Relief Programs
  • Tacoma-Pierce County Tech Success Stories
  • Traffic Avenue and State Route 410 Interchange in Sumner
  • UW Tacoma Milgard Hall
  • Washington State Fair

The 2021 Golden Shovel Award, an award honoring an organization or individual that made a significant contribution to the economic well-being of Tacoma-Pierce County, was dedicated to all South Sound healthcare workers and was accepted by Mary Ragsdale from Virginia Mason Franciscan Health and Jim Beatty from MultiCare.