Loss of vital businesses on Pacific Avenue may explain enrollment numbers

What happened to Pacific Avenue?

Stopping at Granola’s for frozen yogurt, grabbing a pair of oddly-shaped ‘70s sunglasses at UXC, getting a haircut at London’s On The Ave, buying a Tacoma beanie at Bleach, seeing a show at The Swiss – watching bustling groups of students laughing and running to catch the Link – this is a vision of Downtown Tacoma that is long gone. All of these businesses are now closed.

There’s no doubt that COVID wreaked havoc on the Downtown Tacoma scene. What used to be vibrant, active and full of exciting, local businesses is more desolate than ever, partially due to UWTs enrollment slump.

According to the Office of the Registrar’s Academic Data Management, over 5300 students were enrolled for classes in Autumn 2019, while barely 4800 enrolled for classes three years later. The loss of 500 students has taken its toll on the Downtown community.

But what is to blame for a lack of campus allure? Post-COVID barren streets? Rising Tacoma rents? Maybe UWT itself?

In August 2020, UXC, an affordable vintage and secondhand clothing store, closed its doors after 15 years as a prominent business on Pacific Avenue. 

Citing the uncertainty of COVID and the timing of a lease expiration for the closure, one of the owners, Brooke Casanova, said “UW has this monopoly on Downtown.”

“By buying up this major block of historic Tacoma, from a small biz perspective and member of the community, UW has a responsibility to help it thrive if they’re willing to recognize that and make it as high of a priority as enrollment numbers,” she continued

On the other side of Downtown, rent doubling has become an all-too-familiar tale. Local tea house, Mad Hat Tea Company, abruptly closed their 11th and Commerce location in early March after their rent doubled seemingly overnight. 

The owners shared their now-empty retail space on Instagram, saying “We survived COVID, but not greedy landlords.”

As Downtown is treated like a Bellevue and Seattle landlord game of Monopoly, leaving valuable retail empty while they hold out for the highest offer, how can UWT increase enrollment amongst the wasteland the Downtown is rapidly becoming?

UWT needs to focus on fostering a Downtown community. UWT should not act as a for-profit commercial landlord. Instead, it is a community partner that should charge rent on a sliding scale, with lower rents given to businesses that serve students and Tacoma-based businesses. 

UWT has an obligation to offer lower rents over other landlords because of its privilege as a public entity. Taxpayers bought the land UWT sits on – it is public land. Last year, UWT received over 24 million dollars from the State of Washington. Under RCW 84.36.050, UWT doesn’t pay property taxes for property used for educational purposes. Additionally, UWT gets to participate in a risk pool program for insurance. Oh – and UWT gets its own real estate lawyers and brokers – paid for by taxpayers. Other landlords have to pay for these services out of rents received.

So yes, property insurance is skyrocketing, but public entities are not paying your average broker. UWT should not be charging competitive rates because they do not have the same costs. 

UWT is an 800 pound gorilla, financed by taxpayers, price gouging the same community they’re supposed to be serving.

Integrated Facilities Management boasts about 12.5 million in annual sales and 70,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. The Office of the Chancellor should make sure that IFM’s rent practices are in line with the University’s Strategic Plan. 

UWT needs to recognize that part of this plan, and a key part of increasing enrollment numbers, is revitalizing Tacoma’s Downtown district. The 2022-2027 Strategic Plan includes a mission statement that says “As an urban serving university, we catalyze the economic and social vitality of the region.” Goal three of the Strategic Plan aims to “Strengthen collaborative community partnerships with an emphasis on diverse communities,” yet the recent loss of Little Sister and Diamond Leah, two minority-owned shops on Pacific Avenue, show that UWT is actively failing to accomplish this goal.

Priced out of retail spaces, the owner of these businesses, Diamond Stevens, recently took to social media.

“Since 2013 I’ve nurtured these shops and now it is time to nurture myself (and my wallet owning a business and brick and mortar is draining,)” she explained before she continued, asking the community, “How can we make small business sustain and THRIVE in Tacoma?”

The answer is simple: lower rent and place businesses in retail spaces that appeal to the community. In this case, college students. 

While UWT announced plans in March 2022 to find a private partner to build a residence and dining hall, this plan requires partnership with business. 

“We are looking for another tenant that fits into the fabric of the campus,” said Ben Mauk, the Associate Director of Campus Planning and Retail Operations, who was quoted in the Puget Sound Business Journal.

If UWT can’t keep the tenants it has now, how does it expect to attract and retain other businesses? 

Greed is not listed as a value in UWTs strategic plan. Like its program committed to corporate social responsibility, UWT should be a responsible community partner. Aiming to “generate mutually beneficial vitality for our community,” as is clearly stated in the fourth goal of the Strategic Plan.

I have spent the past eight years in Downtown Tacoma, starting at the Tacoma School of the Arts and transitioning to UWT for college. I love this area and this city – the historic buildings, the museums and the mountain. Make Downtown a place we all want to be.