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Tacoma vs. Olympia

The cities could learn a thing or two from each other

The grass is always greener. ...

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In 2012, Tacoma was ranked the 12th most peaceful city in the United States by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The study also found a strong correlation between peace and economic opportunity, health, education and social capital.

In other words, Tacoma is pretty mellow, yo, and that's a good thing. (Check out this year's peace index at

But with media blow-ups about Tacoma stealing Justin Bieber's laptop and street nicknames like "Tacompton," Tacoma deserves more recognition for the peaceful and progressive city it is.

Perhaps it could even be considered a role model - especially for South Sound's little sister, Olympia.

Here we explore a successful nonprofit business model, theater districts, full-body scrub downs and more - things Tacoma has that would make any city more peaceful.

In Olympia, along Capitol Way, five businesses sit vacant. One, a popular Jewish deli, has been closed for just a few months; others have been empty for years. This is not an uncommon sight in the core of a downtown that is doing its best to balance arts, booze and a new children's museum.

"We found that 11.7 percent of downtown storefronts are vacant," said Brian Wilson, city of Olympia liaison. "It leads to the question, during these tough economic times, what can we do to make this location a successful spot for a future business?"

Tacoma is no stranger to the vacant building problem, and it has taken a very progressive approach to remedy the situation.

Enter Spaceworks Tacoma, a nonprofit designed to make no- and low-cost temporary space available to artists, entrepreneurs, organizations and community groups by placing them in unused commercial properties.

Since 2010, at least 44 creative enterprises and residencies have been launched through the program, and many are now long-time, full-paying tenants. Many have a creative and artistic lean.

(Are you reading this, Olympia? Pair entrepreneurs with landlords and get the ball rolling!)

This idea rolls into the next topic - an arts, entertainment and theater district in downtown Olympia.

While one might argue that Olympia is artsy enough on its own, it's hard to ignore the appeal that a specified district holds. Tourism, bigger acts and an active board would certainly have their benefits.

"Anything that promotes art is good," said Elizabeth Lord, local performer and manager of the Midnight Sun Performance Space, who has been invited by the Olympia Arts Commission to discuss a potential arts and entertainment district, including theater.

Tacoma designated a theater district 12 years ago, ahead of Seattle even, pioneering the way for renaissance recognition.

And while Olympia keeps talking about creating a district, momentum hasn't been there.  

Maybe this will change with ongoing discussion, which Lord said will include commissioning local artists to help designate the district and looking into vacant commercial spaces to bring in more arts. (Ahem - Spaceworks, people!)

While all these ideas could theoretically make Olympia a more peaceful and prosperous place, here are a few other things Olympia should adopt from Tacoma:

  • A hair salon/barbershop designed by and for rockers, like Supernova Hair.
  • An adult-friendly arcade, like Dorky's.
  • A school bus turned art-on-wheels that tours art galleries monthly, such as the ART BUS.
  • A full-service women's spa, with scrub downs and heated pools, like the not-technically-Tacoma-but-close-enough, Olympus Spa in Lakewood.

And just to be fair, here are a few ways Olympia could enlighten Tacoma:

  • A decent bus system, including night rides to popular destinations, like Intercity Transit offers.
  • An all-ages club that can hold its own and has staying power, like Northern.
  • A pizza parlor that epitomizes cool with vintage posters and cheap slices of pie, like Old School.
  • And a program that puts citizens on the streets to help business owners, transients and visitors alike, like Olympia's Ambassador Program.

If we can all continue to work together, learn from each other, and create lasting partnerships between our growing communities, perhaps we can raise that peace ranking even higher.

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