The Seattle Times’ excellent business columnist, Jon Talton, has a wide-ranging discussion of our local economy, which he says was heading for a downturn before the coronavirus stall-out. Indeed, the headwinds are uncommonly strong and aligned: Boeing in trouble, China trade curtailed, Amazon migrating outward, downtown looting, the retail sector and tourism knocked for a loop, Seattle’s dysfunctional and business-bashing politics. Not only that, but the West Seattle Bridge is falling down.
To this I would add a fine local specialty–complacency. Seattle, as when Boeing was riding high, puts off economic planning to let the good times roll. The fact that this region rode out the 2008 housing bust relatively well added to the complacency. But the main factor was amazin’ Amazon’s growth and related technology investments in jobs, housing, and adjacent high-end retail. Compounding the complacency syndrome is the expectation that all will be well once a vaccine arrives and some of the fluff in our local economy is combed out.
Talton himself suffers from the syndrome, writing: “The much-deadlier 1918 influenza didn’t stop the trends that were at work before the pandemic hit, including rising urbanization. And in America, the great flu was followed by one of the greatest economic booms in history.” (And Crash.) He quotes the famously ambivalent density-guru, Richard Florida, who contends that super-city downtowns like Seattle’s will not be crippled, but instead rid themselves of too many office towers and chain stores. Beams sunny Florida:
“Chain stores were a huge part of the gentrification & dullification of NYC. … Good riddance. And get on with rebuilding the city & the metro region around 15-minute neighborhoods, in the city, in the suburbs, where people can work closer to where they live & shorten commutes.” Oh, that!
Such wishfulness is part of our ingrained psychology: All will be well, soon, so just dine off our Acres of Clams. Maybe so, but doesn’t it make more sense to have a plan for economic growth — diversified and more equitable? At which point another regional liability shows its head. We don’t really have a potent, respected economic-development agency spanning the metropolitan region and making hard choices. As is typical, we have a series of small ones, each protecting its turf and staff.
Our preferred course is more conferences (keynoted by Richard Florida) and crossed fingers.