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Tale of two cities and debate over a region's name

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The congenial disagreements that I've had over the past couple of years with my friend John Powers, longtime economic development leader in this area, about our respective views of Seattle's future role in the region took on a bit of a new spin as a result of last week's Seattle elections.

In some respects, our discussions reflect primarily on who Seattle was, and its likely comeback, vs. a changing workplace dynamic and its maybe not comeback might be the tale of two cities.

Powers, whom I met 20 years ago when he was mayor of my hometown of Spokane and who then came to Seattle to head the King County economic development organization that he renamed Enterprise Seattle, has contended that despite the growth of the surrounding communities and counties, this region needs to remain "the Greater Seattle" area.

I have contended that it's time to focus on the fact this is the "Puget Sound Area," with the image of Seattle declining, and marketing material should acknowledge a Puget Sound designation.

John PowersJohn PowersBut the Seattle election results that suggest moderates may again be in the ascendancy in Seattle may have changed the tone of my conversations with Powers, who actually became a client of mine for a time after I retired as publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal and he was lured away from Enterprise Seattle to run Colliers International's Northwest operation. We've stayed close since then.

My view had seemed to gather greater credibility when Amazon CEO Andy Jassey, obviously throwing down the gauntlet to Seattle, told the Geekwire summit in early October: "We don't view Seattle as our HQ1 any longer. We view it as Puget Sound."

Jassy wasn't taking part in that "what should we call our region" discussion. But he might have been when he commented: "Bellevue, just east of Seattle, is where most of our growth will end up being." He added that he wouldn't be surprised if Amazon opened other offices in additional cities in the region.

But soon after Jassey's comments came last week's mayoral and a city council race and, of all things, a city attorney contest involving a former Republican who won. That allowed us to agree that, in Powers' words, it was "absolutely heartening" to see Bruce Harrell's overwhelming victory in the race to be Seattle's next mayor and the sense of the city's moderates emerging to actually make their voices heard.

For business and civic leaders in communities across Puget Sound who may have become convinced that the Seattle they watched warily over the past several years was on the verge of becoming a city living on the memories of yesterday's accomplishments, those Seattle election results had to bring a collective sigh of relief.

There was a particular satisfaction in seeing the photo of Harrell, son of a black father and Japanese mother, standing next to a hugely smiling Norm Rice, the black leader whose two successful terms as mayor saw him build back downtown, improve schools and reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Powers summed it up for me thus: "Bruce Harrell's Election bodes well for the entire region as 'Seattle Together' begins to tackle big challenges and moves forward to regain its footing and credibility. It will take time - resources - and a strong political consensus as well as the will to turn the situation around - but I do believe Mayor Harrell's election will be seen as the event that was the beginning of the turnaround."

But careful about giving way to optimism too soon, I told Powers in a post-election conversation. We have to see how Harrell as mayor handles the pushback that is sure to come from the group of city council members furthest on the political left, considerably to the left of Harrell.

It's pretty clear that the greatest opposition to Harrell is likely to come from council member Kshama Sawant. But then Powers offered: "Sawant's voice is going to grow feinter not louder." And she may be recalled in a vote on December 7.

And I suggested to Powers, who retired a year ago after nine years guiding the Kitsap Economic Development organization and moved home to Spokane, that Jassey may have inadvertently opened the door to that "Greater Seattle" vs. Puget Sound Area" discussion.

The elections were one of the things that have loomed on the horizon to determine what the future holds for Seattle's long dominance in the region's identity. The other, which hasn't gotten a lot of attention yet with the elections dominating the discussion, is the yet-to-be-released census data.

If the census data, to be distributed in depth before year-end, shows dramatic comparative growth of the Eastside vs, Seattle, it may require rethinking from both political and resource-allocation standpoints of the relative impact of the city vs. its Eastside suburbs.

The region is flush with communities whose ties with each other are at least as important to them as ties with Seattle, much as with the array of individual cities surrounding the Bay Area, which of course is a designation that has come to be globally recognized, as would The Puget Sound Area become.

In fact, I'd submit that the idea has been made much more logical by the post-COVID phenomenon of remote work, which is allowing a large percentage of workers once office-bound five days a week to now choose what appealing place they want to live. And it's likely to be true that communities around Puget Sound, along with more distant and more rural locations, will be in the running to create strategies to lure those remote workers.

And it's already clear that far fewer employees are likely to be working downtown, leaving a central Seattle that may well be far less a "where it's at" business community than it was accustomed to being in the pre-COVID time.

And it was amusing to see the PSBJ struggle over the "what's the name" issue over the weekend when under a headline that read "Seattle region office market's rent growth is tops in North America," the reporter wrote, "The Puget Sound region ranked No. 1 among North America's 30 leading tech markets for office rent growth."

Among those I visited with on the regional-name topic, I thought the best summing up for my side of the discussion came from a retired newspaperman, Peter Horvitz, who owned and was publisher for several decades of the Eastside Journal and the South County Journal, before succumbing to the inability to create a successful daily competitor of the Seattle Times. He thus understood the east-west competition in a more personal way than most business people on either side.

His summation of "the center of gravity has shifted away from Seattle" would draw a knowing acknowledgment from Eastside business leaders and a likely closed-lipped, reluctant lifting of eyebrows from many Seattle business leaders

"Despite what Seattle thinks, the growth has moved and won't be stopped," offered Horvitz, who himself moved with his wife recently to Florida. "It's important for people in positions of influence in the area to recognize the role the Eastside has come to play, a role that requires a rethinking of allocation of resources and where the political power rests."

And as with most Seattle vs. Eastside ideas, I had to ask Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, despite the fact that in repeated attempts over the years, I've never been able to get him to wax critical of Seattle, inevitably telling me "the leaders of Seattle were all friends of mine. I had dinner at their homes."

Of course, that reluctance to criticize has never extended to Seattle-born ideas that would impact the rest of the region, as with ST3, the light rail program for the region, the most expensive transportation program ever undertaken in the nation. Freeman paid for piles of research trying to defeat ST3 with the message it would never attract enough riders to cover the costs.

And merely because it will actually be completed doesn't mean Freeman might not be right in the end, particularly if remote work significantly decreases the number of people heading to downtown offices.

But Freeman did tell me for this column, "I can't explain how they've lost all the things that made Seattle great."

Then comes a vote for Powers' view from John Oppenheimer, founder, and CEO of Columbia Hospitality, the Seattle management and consulting company with a portfolio of more than 40 properties, hotels, restaurants, conference centers, and golf courses, in two dozen different communities, many of which could likely become remote-work success stories.

Thus he could be the region's key beneficiary of the growth of the remote-work phenomenon and the rise of Zoom Towns far from urban centers, although since his firm operates the World Trade Center as well as Port of Seattle conference facilities and owns part of the Four Seasons Hotel,

Oppenheimer would prefer to have economic health occur for both downtown and distant towns. And as he told me, "I'm very optimistic about downtown. Yes, we've had a period of shakeup, but the number of people moving downtown is increasing, the number of new apartment units is increasing and the inventory is on the rise. And the new convention center will add to the need for downtown."

I thought the best close for this column was to relate what's come to be a growing recognition of those from around the region, outside of Seattle, who, when in meetings in other parts of the country now note that when they say they are from Seattle, they catch themselves and correct if they are actually from Bellevue or Redmond, for example.

And one business person chuckled as he related an incident at the Canadian border as the border agent asked where he was from while looking at his driver's license. "Seattle," came the reply. "Then why does your license say Bellevue?"
 
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