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Editor's column - Revitalizing downtown: you gotta believe in it first

"Where I grew up, modern retailers built big-box stores along the commercial strips of our city, sucking the life out of our downtown. Where I grew up, once-proud downtown retailers fought for survival, then made the inevitable business decision and pulled stakes. Marginal new businesses, drawn by the cheaper rents, filled the vacant downtown buildings.Where I grew up, shoppers went to the malls and the new big box retailers. Downtown turned into a wasteland, except for a few pockets of drunken nightlife.Where I grew up, the waterfront was jaw-dropping beautiful, but mostly deserted. It was as if the city couldn't see the jewel right in front of its nose.I grew up in Tacoma. The City of Destiny, as it's called, was a Puget Sound community down on its luck around 1970. A blue-collar stepchild to Seattle, it had none of the culture or charm of its neighbor. It lacked a vibrant downtown core and it offered pretty much nothing to tourists. Tacoma was mostly known for its odor, a blend of industrial stink known as the Aroma of Tacoma.Last February, while covering the state wrestling tournament in the Tacoma Dome for the News-Times, I was able to tour downtown Tacoma a bit. The changes are exciting to former residents like me, who remember downtown T-Town at its worst. And I think there's a lesson here for Oak Harbor.The anchor of downtown Tacoma, Union Station, has been remodeled to all of its turn-of-the-century splendor, with Dale Chihuly blown glass artwork suspended from the ceiling. The new Washington State Historical Museum is located next door, and offers state-of-the-art exhibits - a true tourist attraction. Across the street, the University of Washington has remodeled some of Tacoma's most attractive old brick buildings as the site of a satellite campus. That, in turn, has spurred a retail revival in the area, with coffee shops, cafes and brew pubs sprouting up. I saw Congressman Norm Dicks drop in for a mocha and a muffin at a Starbucks on Pacific Avenue. Thirty years ago Pacific Avenue was a hangout for hookers.The revitalization of downtown Tacoma is now starting to snowball. The historic Roxy and Rialto theaters are home to plays and live music. Law and accounting firms are snapping up office space. There are even plans for a multimillion dollar retail center, which promises to bring an even greater buzz of commerce back to the area.And Tacoma has discovered its waterfront. Driving to the Tacoma Dome on a sunny Saturday morning for the second day of the wrestling tournament, I toured Ruston Way, the road that skirts Tacoma's Commencement Bay. The city has developed two piers, as well as a tree-lined park the entire length of the shoreline. There were literally thousands of people enjoying the waterfront - walking, bicycling, fishing or just sitting and watching the boats sail by.What does all this have to do with Oak Harbor? In my lifetime, Tacoma has been seen as a city that is not special. Its downtown and waterfront were completely dead 20 years ago. But Tacoma's civic leaders created a vision for their city, a vision of a vibrant downtown/waterfront core. They found grants to build a pier, remodel the train station and refurbish old art centers. As they accomplished the first few steps of their vision, momentum built, and they are now on their way to creating a downtown that most people, including me, thought was lost to Tacoma forever.Here in Oak Harbor, our downtown is sleepy (to be kind) and our waterfront is underutilized. If our city is going to have a heartbeat outside the stream of traffic on Highway 20, it needs to happen on the waterfront and downtown. Oak Harbor once had a pier. It once had a thriving downtown. We can have it again. We just have to believe it's possible first."

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