The downtown Business Improvement Area turned 25 years old this spring and is facing much different challenges than when it started at the beginning of the “Tacoma Renaissance” of the late 1980s.
“Downtown has changed a lot since then,” said Maintenance Supervisor Jim Burgess, who remembers those early years of the BIA. “There were drug dealers at every street corner for blocks around.”
He noted that several of the BIA sidewalk sweepers actually liked cleaning up those high trafficked corners along Pacific Avenue between South Ninth and South 25th streets back then because they would often find wadded up $20 and $50 bills that had been apparently discarded by dealers fleeing the police patrols during the previous night.
“They weren’t apparently very careful with their money,” Burgess said.
Founded in 1988 as a way to provide litter clean up and early evening security for downtown workers who were finding themselves having to walk through rows of homeless people panhandling, drug dealers selling dime bags and otherwise empty streets, the BIA now provides security and street sweepers as well as serves as a go-to organization for a host of issues.
The programs are supported by the building owners within the 84-block district of downtown that spans from South 7th Street to South 21st Street and 'A' Street west to Court 'D.' The private, not-for-profit corporation is managed through an annual contract the City of Tacoma has with Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce to collect the $822,000 from ratepayers and administrate the various programs that range from graffiti removal to e-mail alerts and promotions.
But back in the day, the effort was all about security and grime cleaning, especially along Pacific Avenue around Tacoma Rescue Mission, which made the city’s main street the hub for panhandlers and street loitering. The mission’s move a few blocks south to make way for the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center a decade ago, Burgess said, was a key factor in the turn-around.
The security patrols, however, continue. But their presence is more “eyes and ears” for police and informational for visitors than these days, said Metropolitan Development Director David Schroedel.
That raises the question of whether the black-and-yellow patrols on bicycles could go the way of Portland’s mobile information specialists, who have maps and business directories at the ready throughout the Rose City's downtown.
“We could get to that point,” Schroedel said.
The BIA, he said, strives to take the proactive approach to problem solving, which includes meetings on issues and changes as well as promotions and collaborations. Street planters, banners and pressure washing every downtown sidewalk at least twice a year makes the area more inviting to shoppers, for example.