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Tacoma Finds Renewal in Arts

Seattle may be bigger and have more pro sports teams, but its smaller neighbor to the southwest is trying to use theaters and museums to boost its image

Reporter: ``I'm working on a story about Tacoma.''

Source in Seattle: ``I'm sorry to hear that.''

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FOR years, the cities of Seattle and Tacoma have had a friendly rivalry, with residents of Seattle holding the upper hand. After all, any real debate about which city would be dominant in Washington State was settled a century ago when Seattle beat out its southwesterly neighbor as the region's railroad terminus.

Tacoma took on the role of a smaller, predominantly working-class city, with a smoke-puffing paper plant and an international cargo port across from a modest-size downtown.

``Tacoma doesn't have a great name,'' acknowledges resident Kim Downing. But he says the city with a chip on its shoulder has ``changed dramatically'' in the last five years.

``We're back,'' asserts Mayor Harold Moss.

An extraordinarily focused effort by local residents, businesses, and officials is allowing Tacoma to develop a theater district, build several new museums, and lay plans for yet more cultural developments in once hollowed-out areas of downtown.

The arts may seem an unlikely starting point, but economist Bruce Mann says ``this is a very hot area in urban redevelopment.'' Minneapolis, Cleveland, Portland, Ore., and Bangor, Maine, are among the cities looking to museums and concert halls to make downtowns upbeat.

Like the urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, these efforts can fail, notes Mr. Mann, a professor at the University of Puget Sound here. In Britain, Birmingham struggled when it tried to duplicate London's successful South Bank redevelopment based on theater and musical attractions, he says. Still, ``cities, be they small, large, or in-between, that have well-thought-out plans ... have been very, very successful.''

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With a population of 200,000, Tacoma won't soon upstage Seattle, with its half-million residents, as the region's cultural and economic capital. But a few days ago the largest solo glass art exhibit in history opened here, housed appropriately enough in Union Station, a former rail hub.

Seattle may have the area's big-league sports teams, but the most successful of those teams, basketball's Supersonics, will play next season in the Tacoma Dome, while its home stadium is refurbished. That may give many Seattle residents a second look at its long-pitied cousin.

``Tacoma has really done a remarkable job in revitalizing the downtown,'' says William Beyers, a University of Washington geography professor.

Part of the revival is the recent establishment of a branch campus of the University of Washington, for which old warehouses across from Union Station are being remodeled. Next to the train station, excavation is under way on a $35-million Washington State Historical Museum, due to open in 1996.

The Tacoma Art Museum hopes to build a new home of its own not far away. The new building would accommodate a permanent collection of glass art by Dale Chihuly. The Tacoma native has become the world-recognized leader in that field, managing a team of glass blowers to create works such as the orange ``Monarch Series,'' one of five installations at Union Station.

In the 1980s, Tacoma developed several projects - including parks, the Tacoma Dome for big events, and libraries - with about $70 million in bond issues.

But the more recent achievements have involved largely private financing, including donations by individuals and businesses working in partnership with City Hall. One symbol of this teamwork is the Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma, a group of business leaders founded in 1987 to promote key downtown projects.

``Things like this don't just happen,'' says David Allen, the council's executive director, referring to the Union Station glass exhibit. ``We have really learned to work together.''

Three theaters, reopened or built since 1980, are now owned by the city but were financed primarily by private money, including small-business people who saw the effort as an investment in the downtown's future.

Money has also come from federal and state government sources for projects such as the University of Washington campus, the state historical museum, and initial restoration of Union Station. (Ownership of that building will pass to the federal government). The military, historically a large economic presence, is projected to increase as Fort Lewis absorbs personnel from base closures in California.

The city still has challenges. The University of Puget Sound law school decided to move to Seattle, and some economists say the local economy could use more high-tech and professional jobs.

To link the Union Station area with more hoped-for cultural attractions across a highway, artist Chihuly is designing a bridge of colored-glass pyramids that will be lit by neon chandeliers.

Tacoma's next big plan, Mr. Downing quips, is ``to move the space needle down here'' from Seattle.

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