As 2014 dawns a New Year for people worldwide, Tacoma is no exception to greeting a year of new issues to face and challenges to meet. Here, we take a look at some of the top stories Tacomans will be reading about in 2014.
While the legalization of recreational marijuana use was approved by voters last year, the actual rules that will make it a reality come in 2014.
Washington State Liquor Control Board officials have drafted rules about how growers and retailers will be allowed to operate after being vetted and taxed before cannabis products meet the mouths of consumers. But how those rules are actually going to work and how the illegal sale of marijuana by unlicensed dealers will be affected remain gray areas of the law that will fill up 2014 with hearings, reports and proposed revisions.
Tacoma is slated to get as many as eight pot retailers, while all of Pierce County will have as many as 31 stores that will be allocated based on a city’s population and zoning. An unanswered question about the disbursal of marijuana retailers centers on the fact that the Pierce County Council approved an outright ban on marijuana stores in unincorporated areas because marijuana is still considered an illegal drug in the eyes of federal law enforcement agencies. The state law legalizing recreational marijuana doesn’t have a provision to allow communities from simply opting out of providing areas for pot shops. That fact sets up a showdown between marijuana retails and county officials that will likely also play out in 2014.
The free rides on Tacoma Link light rail are going to end this year as Sound Transit steps forward with plans to install $550,000 in ticketing equipment to collect $1 per rider starting in the fall.
While those plans inch forward, the actual expansion route to bring light rail service to Martin Luther King Junior Way will face more hearings and open houses. The effort will also include options of how the city will fund the $50 million “local partnership” needed to fund the $150 million project that also includes Sound Transit and yet-awarded federal grant dollars. Some of the local dollars will be covered by in-kind services from city planners, but that won’t likely cover the full $50 million. Limited Improvement District funding from the neighborhood or added taxes might also be in the works to reach the magic number needed to actually start turning shovels for the route to connect the Medical Mile to downtown.
Tacoma’s budget gap
There have been sighs of relief, of sorts, that the city’s budget is showing signs of recovery following the massive layoffs, furloughs and salary freezes of 2013.
But more cuts are in the works as the city tries to finally live within its means, without funding on-going expenses with onetime revenue by deferring needed repairs or from new construction taxes.
The city is projected to have a general fund shortfall of about $26.3 million in 2015 through 2016 and another $38 million during the following biennial budget for 2017 and 2018.
City expenses associated with employee salaries and benefits, for example, have been growing at three times the rate of revenue growth. That translates into some tough negotiations and hard decisions in the works for the summer as the city council drafts its next biennial budget to bring those costs closer to being sustainable. Salary and benefit contracts for the unionized fire and police departments, as well as the classified city staff, will come at a time when the city also will be trying to find ways to pay for the decades of deferred road repairs to keep those repair bills from ballooning out of control if left underfunded.
The city’s Financial Sustainability Task Force of volunteer accountants and specialists, tasked with developing recommendations, has issued a list of 28 suggestions largely focuses on cutting city salaries and benefits to keep pace with the rate of revenue growth. Those recommendations are under review for action in 2014.
Hope for State Route 167
Two decades after the State Route 167 project first started, construction remains stalled by a lack of funding to finish the last critical strip that would mean a fast-track corridor between international shipping operations on the Tacoma Tideflats and the warehouse and distribution center of the Puyallup Valley.
There had been hope as late as last month that lawmakers would agree on a transportation package that would raise gas taxes and other fees to fund a host of projects around the state, including SR 167. But those plans died without a deal, so the search for funding continues. While there is some hope that the issue will be a top priority when the legislative session starts again next week, the short session is already being rapidly filled with ways to cut costs of government and fund public education, making SR 167 funding a long shot yet again.
When, or if, the roadway is completed, cargo from ships could more rapidly find their way to markets in the East and Interstate 5 would face less congestion due to the stream of trucks having faster routes between the shipping terminals and distribution centers in Kent and Auburn.
Charter review process
Tacoma is set to get a facelift on how it does business, with the city’s charter set for review. The charter review process occurs every 10 years and has a group of residents combing over all the rules and regulations that govern city operations in an effort to be more efficient and effective.
One issue that always seems to crop up is a change in city government from a city manager to a “strong mayor” system in which a city administrator works as the city’s top employee. Many cities of Tacoma’s size have strong mayor systems, but the notion hasn’t gotten much traction locally.
The city last changed its charter in 2004 with policies that laid out how residents can recall elected officials as well as more streamlined requirements for initiatives and referendums.
The city council is set to select the Charter Review Committee from the 52 applications submitted. Council members each appoint one representative from their district while the remaining are reviewed and appointed by the full council.
Eastside community center talks
Metro Parks Tacoma will be holding an open house next week, Jan. 8, to discuss a plan to build a new state-of-the-art community center on Tacoma’s east side. The neighborhood has suffered closures of schools, libraries and the Boys and Girls Club in recent years, effectively limiting the anchor facilities that generally define a neighborhood.
Metro Parks Tacoma officials had announced in October that they were drafting a feasibility study for the new community center, which is being considered in response to concerns of neighborhood residents who have advocated for healthy, safe activities for local youth. The study aims to address service gaps and community needs in the areas of health and recreation activities, social gathering spaces and educational and cultural opportunities. It is planned for completion early next year. The study is a partnership between the City of Tacoma, Metro Parks Tacoma, Tacoma Housing Authority and Tacoma Public Schools. Metro Parks Tacoma is also inviting residents to participate in a survey online here.
The upcoming open house will be held on Jan. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the Portland Avenue Community Center, located at 3513 Portland Ave., in Tacoma. Meeting topics include site and building design concepts, use program refinements and project finances.
Amtrak at Freighthouse Square
Amtrak wants to relocate its passenger service station a few blocks from the current facility along Puyallup Avenue to better connect to the Sounder station and other mass transportation options in the Dome District. Train operators are looking at making the shift to Freighthouse Square, which would undergo massive renovations if plans move forward.
Thoughts of replacing the 104-year-old Freighthouse Square with a glassed-in train facility has history buffs and residents upset about the loss of yet another icon of the city.
Amtrak has said Freighthouse is the only feasible option to relocate the Amtrak offices, and that’s understandable. But folks are upset about the loss of history in the name of progress, no matter how the current retail operation of the Square continues to struggle.
If the debate about the now-gone Luzon building and the restored Murray Morgan bridge are any indication for things to come, Amtrak is in for a fight that could get ugly in 2014.
TSO’s new director
Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s recent appointment of Sarah Ioannides as its next music director is big news for the city in several ways.
“Her spectacular debut with the orchestra last February made a deep and lasting impression on the Board, orchestra and patrons,” stated TSO President Dick Ammerman. “We are looking forward to a fruitful partnership that will take the TSO to new heights of artistic vibrancy and community engagement.”
Described by The New York Times as a conductor with “unquestionable strength and authority,” Ioannides’ dynamic presence has won praise from audiences and critics internationally with engagements spanning five continents. Her initial contract with the TSO spans a full five seasons, starting in 2014. She is already at work with TSO officials in planning her inaugural season, which is slated to open in the fall.
"The news of my appointment comes with great happiness to me,” said Ioannides. “I embrace my future in Tacoma with excited anticipation of changing times for orchestras. May we be part of the wave that brings music to more and more people’s hearts from all walks of life, and sustain the gifts of music through engaging live performances over the next decade.”
The Australian-born, British conductor is a versatile musician. Her past studies include violin, viola, piano and French horn, as well as singing, recorder, saxophone and guitar. She earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Music degrees from Oxford University, an Advanced Certificate in Conducting from the Guildhall School of Music in London, a Diploma in Conducting from the Curtis Institute of Music where she studied as a Fulbright scholar and a Masters in Orchestral Conducting from the Juilliard School of Music. Ioannides served as assistant conductor and production coordinator to Tan Dun for many multimedia performances worldwide.
Another entry in the roster of big changes to the arts community comes in 2014 with the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art wing and collection taking shape at Tacoma Art Museum (TAM).
Construction of the Olson Kundig-designed, 16,000-square-foot wing has begun and will double the museum’s gallery space, provide greater art experiences for visitors and increase the museum’s role in downtown Tacoma. The $15 million wing doubles TAM’s exhibit space just 10 years after the current museum opened.
The expansion translates into a boost of the museum’s economic impact by $1.5 million annually for a total of $5.9 million in tourism spending.
The project’s team also includes Murase Associates as the landscape architecture firm, Sellen Construction as the project’s construction company and Bonewitz Project Leadership as project management. The project will create a lobby and gallery space. It will also include a new family interactive gallery, a sculpture hall and a visitor orientation room. The museum’s outdoor plaza will be transformed with a canopy that will arch over both the existing museum and the new wing. Outdoors, public art installations will be woven into the areas surrounding the museum.
German industrialist billionaire Erivan Haub has ties to Tacoma, dating back to when he visited with his wife Helga in the 1950s. Three of his sons were born at Tacoma General Hospital. He has had business and family interests in the area ever since.
The donated collection includes prominent 19th century artists who shaped our views of Native Americans, mountain men, cowboys and pristine American landscapes. Big names in the collection include George Catlin, John Mix Stanley, Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington. From the 20th century, the collection includes artists, such as E. Martin Hennings, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tom Lovell and John Clymer, who brought modern art movements west and who explored western history and American identity. The collection also includes many artists who are active and working today. Contemporary Native American artists William Acheff and Kevin Red Star take a fresh approach and portray American culture in a modern light, and pop artist Bill Schenck uses humor and satire to challenge long-held assumptions about the American West. Together, these collections will offer a comprehensive understanding of the Northwest region as part of the expanded history of the West. The exhibit will open in fall of 2014.
Walkability and Pacificscape
The Pacific Avenue Streetscape has been troublesome for downtown businesses that have had to endure a sluggish economy and streets that were being torn up for the last three years to make downtown more user-friendly.
The project included installation of right-of-way improvements in a 10-block area on Pacific Avenue from South 7th to South 17th streets that include eco-friendly stormwater control designs and improved pedestrian, bicycle, public transit and vehicle features. The street will have upgraded sidewalks, new curbs and curb ramps, improved landscaping and public art to attract more visitors by being more walkable.
The work is largely done, but some nips and tucks will continue through the winter. Few places in the city receive the study, planning and construction like Tacoma’s downtown, so it will be interesting to see how the changes in street design affect shopping patterns.
The rise of UWT
University of Washington Tacoma is on the march as it adds programs, students and new facilities in currently vacant lots dotted around the campus’ master plan area. The latest slate of projects will expand the campus further up the hillside to include changes along Market Street with the Prairie Line trail connecting it to the rest of the city. Work on that will start in the summer. Other projects in the works include University Y, the product of a partnership between UWT and YMCA that will create a student services center that will also be open to other Y members; changes to the intersection of 17th Street and Broadway to improve pedestrian safety and changes to the building that houses the Swiss Hall that will be renovated for retail and office uses.
One thing that isn’t in the works is a building for student housing. Most of the current students commute to classes from outside downtown, and that trend is not likely to change enough to warrant dedicated student housing around campus.