History, geography and education all played a role in the prosperity we like to brag about. So did Bill Boeing, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, writes Ron Judd.

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OH MAN, ARE WE SPECIAL. In Seattle, this is no longer even in dispute. About five years ago, when the building-trades folks started calling in welders from other states, just to meet the demand for high-rise upslapping, people stopped asking “whether” and leapt straight ahead to “just how much?”

Answer: Very, very, very special, if you ask politicians or geeks-in-chief of Seattle’s burgeoning tech industries. The city, most will tell you, is that rarest example of a metropolitan area that sagely tucked its head under a Seattle sombrero and let the storms of the 2008 recession wash right over it, emerging with a refreshed infrastructure poised to ride the wave of the New Digital Economy.

So here we are eight years later, and surf’s up. Do you see all those yellow cranes? Well, they don’t erect these things in places run by posers. In some circles, the construction-boom ends fully justify the means, and to listen to city leaders, the means were their own guiding wisdom.

So self-assured is Power Seattle in its own inimitable foresight that some of its members have even taken to crowing that economic expansion thrives best in politically left-leaning enclaves. Seriously. As in, the biggest business blossoms are rooted in the sort of mandatory-composting urban village possessing the rare courage to ban circus elephants.

Editor’s note: In 2016, Pacific NW magazine will explore our world of work. In Seattle’s workplaces, one thing you can count on is change. We’ll try to help you make sense of it.

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If you put all this together, Seattle and environs are not only special, but unique on a planetary scale.

“King County is unlike any other region in the world, bringing together visionary leaders across industries in a culture that nurtures and supports new thinking and bold ideas,” declares the Economic Development Council of Seattle & King County, among the region’s top pro-growth cheerleaders.

All of this, of course, according to plan.

But was it?

Simply uttering those words is likely to prompt an emergency inspection by the Seattle City Shut-Up-And-Play-Along Enforcement Bureau. Which doesn’t mute the relevancy of a question that gets to the very heart of the legitimacy of our own present civic self-worth:

What if it was all just an accident?

Can’t you make the argument that Seattle’s current economic explosion is nothing more than a casual pointing of the fickle finger of fate, fueled more by the fact that two smart, destined-to-be rich guys named Bill (Boeing and Gates) and one named Jeff (Bezos) just happened to like the view of our mountain?

You could try. And we did.

The answer, for those of you with a plane to catch, is sort of, but not really. (Sorry.) Still, the goo between the spacer bars framing the question is interesting enough to endure some squishiness.

When we asked some learned observers whether Seattle’s present economic success owes more to luck than cunning, a consensus actually emerged: Yes, the new Seattle we love and loathe is, to some degree a product of sheer, blind luck, as outlined in the Three-White-Guys-Who-Located-Here theory, above.

But (raise your hand if you saw this coming) that luck, by itself, wouldn’t have been enough to make the Seattle metro area what it is now. The broader success of Seattle as a thriving techtopia center, they say, owes every bit as much to history, geography, education and, yes, some creative capitalizing on all the gifts the place was given, by leaders in industry, education — and even politics, back when politicians actually accomplished stuff.

Let us first deal with the dumb-luck portion of the program.

 

Bill Boeing. (Aiolos Productions handout)

Bill Gates. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Jeff Bezos. (Ben Margot/AP)

 

NO ONE CAN deny the fortuitous economic impact of the Two Bills / One Jeff.

Bill the first, William Edward Boeing, Yale-educated son of a wealthy German mining engineer, chose Seattle as home after visiting the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (Seattle World’s Fair Number One), with designs on building wooden boats and airplanes. He died on his yacht in 1956, long after his little airplane company got big. Even though its corporate headquarters flew the coop to Chicago in 2001, the impact on the Puget Sound economy remains massive.

Bill Boeing was the president of a timber company when he moved to Seattle and started building airplanes. (Courtesy of The Boeing Company C)
Bill Boeing was the president of a timber company when he moved to Seattle and started building airplanes. His company’s impact on the Puget Sound economy remains massive. (Courtesy of The Boeing Company C)

Boeing still employs nearly 80,000 people in the state, and has provided, despite numerous boom cycles of its own, a steadying influence on the local economy for a full century. That sort of adaptability — and resulting longevity — in the manufacturing sector is exceedingly rare. (See: U.S. Midwest.)

The second Bill, William Henry Gates, actually was from here — a product of the elite Lakeside School, along with classmate Paul Allen. The two PC software pioneers founded their software businessin Albuquerque, N.M., in 1975, but brought it back home in 1979. Off it went. Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond campus now dominates Seattle’s Eastside, employing 43,000 well-paid workers in the Puget Sound region. Gates is the richest man on Earth, and has pledged to give most of his fortune away. Notably, when he established a global charity headquartersto do so in 2000, he built it dead square in the middle of Seattle. Home.

The Jeff in question, Jeffrey Preston Bezos, is the new guy. Once a young entrepreneurial whiz on Wall Street, the future Amazon King in 1994 peered into the future and saw, before most of the rest of the world, the infinite and inevitable business expansion opportunities of the Internet, which he sought to exploit. Bezos could have started Amazon.comanywhere — he and his wife, as the tale is told in the book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon,” by Brad Stone, literally packed their stuff in boxes and told a moving company to head west, to a location they would specify in due time.

They landed in Bellevue for reasons Stone portrays as almost comically businesslike. The Princeton-educated Bezos wanted to base his future empire — ultimately, a sort of online Sears store — in a place with some tech-hub cred, but without a huge population, primarily for tax purposes. (He had to charge sales tax, at the time, only to shoppers in the state where his offices were located. A base in California, New York or Texas took too many potential tax-free shoppers off the board).

Bezos ultimately moved Amazon from his Bellevue garage to Sodo and other environs before settling in, for good, in South Lake Union, where his money fuels a large share of that sea of yellow cranes dotting our skyline. (Bezos himself is worth north of $50 billion.) Amazon plans to have a local workforce roughly equal in size to that of Microsoft within three years.

Put it all together, and you get what economists call an “unusual dynamic” of opportunity in the Seattle area. And the nation’s tech titans have responded. Thanks to this ever-compounding geek synergy of coders, engineers, big thinkers and other world changers, King County has developed a tech ethos rivaled today, perhaps, only by the Bay Area. The crowning proof? In the past half-decade, even that region’s leading-edge companies — Google and Facebook and all that cling to them — have put down their own roots in Seattle, almost out of self-defense.

 

(David Miller / The Seattle TImes)
(David Miller / The Seattle TImes)

STILL, EVEN THAT luck-driven, whirlwind of tech largesse — the sort of clean, high-paying jobs any civic area would give practically anything to possess — fails to completely define the Seattle economy, or fully explain its current success, historians and economists insist.

Seattle has been lucky, yes, but it also has “helped itself” create that luck in a number of ways, notes University of Washington historian John Findlay.

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From its beginning, Seattle showed a do-whatever-it-takes resilience. The shivering Denny Party in 1851 first set up at Alki, but quickly jumped across Elliott Bay when it became obvious the hot ticket was ships arriving to load lumber to Gold Rush California. Similarly, during the 1890s, Seattle smartly positioned itself nationally to ensure it won the West Coast contest to become the gateway to the Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush, cementing a “colonial hold” over Alaska that to some degree continues.

Early local leaders also laid the groundwork for today’s prosperity by lobbying for the establishment and steady growth of the University of Washington, the scientific hub at the center of much of the region’s economic activity. And as far back as a century ago, Seattle was smart enough to appreciate the value of its location on the Pacific Rim, cashing in on the coming Pacific Century.

Later, the city kept it all rolling via something rarely seen today — effective politics at the national level. Call it pork-barreling if you will, but the state’s Congressional delegation gets credit for capitalizing on the city’s early good fortune and ensuring, starting with the Cold War era, that Boeing kept getting fat government contracts. (It is easy to forget, Findlay notes, that only political pressure from the likes of Sens. Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson and Rep. Norm Dicks ensured Boeing’s Seattle plants got more work than, say, those in Wichita, Kan., even though the latter was far less vulnerable to feared Soviet air attacks.) Long-influential Seattle labor leaders bought into that concept, as well, and helped maintain the federal gravy train.

Significantly, as times changed, the industrial economy waned and technology sectors grew, Seattle, unlike some of its competitors, managed to hang on to vestiges of early industries. It still maintains valuable container-shipping businesses, and continues to employ tens of thousands of workers in manufacturing plants that make goods ranging from camping gear to construction-grade Re-bar.

“Luck is always involved in economic growth,” Findlay says. “And some of the best-laid plans and efforts failed (such as the Boeing bust of the early 1970s). But Seattle never left economic growth to chance, and some of its decisions and campaigns did pay off.”

At some point, perhaps two decades ago, a tipping point from all those factors emerged. And today we slide happily toward posterity.

 

(David Miller / The Seattle Times)
(David Miller / The Seattle Times)

A CITY “constantly on the make,” in the eyes of many observers, Seattle is no stranger to national and regional boom-bust cycles. But there are reasons for optimism about our new economy. The Seattle area has replaced many lost manufacturing jobs with others in more “forward-leaning” industries. In theory, at least, that leaves it poised to capitalize on future trends.

Seattle, in that sense, shares traits with other regions where innovation has thrived in modern world history, says Margaret O’Mara, a UW historian who specializes in connections between American politics and the growing U.S. tech industry. The elements in these civic success stories tend to be the same, she says:

• Capital, lots of it. O’Mara also points to Seattle’s big dose of defense-related spending, with a nod to Boeing as the primary injector into the economy in the past 75 years, with wealthy tech billionaires now expanding upon that base.

• Stable institutions, preferably a research-oriented university acting as its own scientific/economic engine — “spaces where smart people can play around with ideas, not accountable to quarterly earnings reports.” (Private Stanford is the model; public UW is different, but no slouch.).

• A less-tangible favorability factor that boils down simply to “quality of life.”

The latter characteristic, O’Mara believes, has much to do with Seattle’s present success. “It’s that stickiness,” she says — “the things that bring people to a place and then stick them here.”

That factor was perplexing to her as an outsider, she admits: As a student of near-term history, and author of “Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley,” O’Mara studied the Boeing bust and marveled not about the expected numbers of people who fled Seattle during dire times, but how many stayed, many in defiance of economic common sense.

“With the Boeing bust, suddenly everything goes sideways, but people don’t leave,” she says. “It’s crazy, right? They’re ‘turning out the lights,’ and machinists and engineers should be leaving, but … well, ‘I have my boat, and I ski; it’s my community. I care about this place.’ A remarkable number of people stuck around.”

But after living here for a dozen years herself, O’Mara now says she gets it. The city seems, to outsiders, to exist in its own “cool” zone, part of which is an openness to trying things in new ways. Part of this is geographical, she believes: “Seattle is just the right amount of isolated … we’re off on our own, but we’re still connected.”

The city’s relatively pretense-free culture both represents, and informs, its economic proclivities. Newcomers are drawn to the place for an individualistic lifestyle — the sort of “last-stop” residence many people choose when choice is an option. The businesses they join, or start, reflect that attitude.

That spirit manifests itself in local arts, music, sports, everything. And the economy, driven by people, is not immune.

Result: Some businesses are uniquely inventive because their originators decided they liked the place more than their chosen career, and chose to start from scratch rather than pack their bags for points elsewhere. That created the sort of economic breadth that helps the place prosper, O’Mara believes.

“My argument would be that the Boeing bust forced people to do something different,” she says. “That laid the groundwork for a new wave of innovation.”

And despite recent, seismic changes to the look, feel and pace of the place, that “stickiness” remains Seattle’s chief advantage, O’Mara and others say. “Seattle’s always been a city remaking itself,” she says. It should — really must — continue to do so.

Nothing new there, at least not in Seattle. Asked to choose a single word, most big-picture observers would strike “luck” from the Seattle success story and replace it with “resilience” or “reinvention.”

Caution, however: The sea change that comes with reinvention must be managed delicately — especially in a place with the deeply passionate native sensibilities evident in Seattle. Without “thoughtful” civic management of growth, the quality-of-life glue holding the economic structure together shatters like a pane of glass.

The things that make Seattle thrive as a tech hub and economic dynamo today are great assets, but they are fragile, O’Mara says. “You have to keep it a place people cherish.”

Simple premise. Daunting task. Good luck with it, Seattle. As always, you just might need it.