It's been 38 years since Bob McDonald and Jim Youngren put up the iconic billboard reading "Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights," and its slogan has been used worldwide any time there is an economic downturn.

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You only have to be told the first four words of the billboard:

“Will the last person … “

And you can easily finish the rest:

“Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights.”

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Bob McDonald and Jim Youngren, a couple of real-estate agents who 38 years ago were responsible for the sign, know that every time there is bad economic news a reference to the sign will appear somewhere.

“It just won’t go away,” says Youngren.

Sure enough, with news in recent days of Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft layoffs, the message they had dreamed up while sitting around the office was back again in stories and blogs.

The billboard was displayed for only 15 days in April 1971, near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It was one of the first sights for arriving visitors.

Back in 1971, Seattle was heavily dependent on Boeing for jobs, and the company had cut more than 60,000 of them. Unemployment was at 13 percent, more than double the national average.

In nearly four decades since then, the 10-word message with its simple image has reached iconic status.

The message has been copied all over the world, with the word “Seattle” replaced by Detroit, St. Louis, New Jersey, Australia and even “the planet.”

And it has been used for other occasions in which a catchy, sardonic slogan is desired — “Will the last person with ethics on Wall Street … “

McDonald and Youngren, now 71 and 68, respectively, were in commercial real estate then, selling apartment complexes for the Henry Broderick realty company.

Many of their buyers were out-of-town investors — looking for a deal in the depressed Seattle economy, and expecting images of blight.

“It became comical to Jim and me. We’d pick up these people at the airport, and on the way into downtown, they were so surprised there was even a city, with people walking around, and business taking place,” McDonald says. “I think they were expecting something out of World War II.”

Tales of “city of despair”

How bad did Seattle’s woes appear to the rest of the world? The Seattle correspondent for The Economist, based in London, wrote a depressing dispatch on May 22, 1971, headlined “City of despair.”

The correspondent wrote, “The country’s best buys in used cars, in secondhand television sets, in houses, are to be found in Seattle, Washington. The city has become a vast pawnshop, with families selling anything they can do without to get money to buy food and pay the rent.”

In 1971, the desks of McDonald and Youngren were right across from each other’s, and the idea of a billboard bubbled up.

The investors would see the sign with its devastating message, but then would arrive in the city and see there was plenty of life in it.

The biggest billboard company was Foster & Kleiser, which promptly turned down a sign it perceived as negative.

Then they called a little startup billboard company, Pacific Communications. For $160 a month, Pacific said, it would rent them billboard space on the east side of Pacific High South, at South 167th Street, appropriately enough, across the street from a cemetery.

Reaction to the billboard was immediate.

“It went over real well, once people understood the motivation behind it,” McDonald says. “But there were definitely people who disliked the sign.”

A local radio station, remembers McDonald, said it was “going to make a comment about the sign every newscast until it was taken down.”

Opposition billboards sprung up, such as one that said, “Who says the lights are out in Seattle … NOT US!” The sponsor was Sunny Jim, best known as a Seattle peanut-butter brand.

The men got mail addressed to “The two idiots.”

The startup billboard company felt the pressure of the negative publicity. Pacific Communications left the billboard up for only two weeks and sent back a check for $80.

The management at the realty company, however, was pleased, proudly mentioning the billboard in an in-house newsletter.

McDonald and Youngren thought about cashing in on the publicity by licensing a lighted desktop version of the billboard, but talks with a company went nowhere.

Pair prospered

McDonald says that he did well in apartment-complex sales during the bad Seattle economy. In 1971, they were a bargain for investors.

“You could buy an apartment building for less than construction cost, with virtually nothing down,” McDonald says.

Both McDonald and Youngren prospered in real estate.

McDonald, who lives in Seattle and is married, was able to retire at age 46.

In the intervening decades he has run a 32-foot commercial charter boat, and, mostly, been able to do what he loves: travel.

He’s been to more than 120 countries and all seven continents, including twice to Antarctica.

Youngren, with Weyerhaeuser Real Estate, co-founded Cornerstone Development.

He and his wife live on Orcas Island. He’s a partner in developing a golf course, village and marina on Vancouver Island. He just finished a 12-year term as a trustee of the Bullitt Foundation and has been involved in a number of nonprofits, including the formation of Long Live the Kings to restore wild salmon.

The two men have remained friends, and both very much believe in real estate.

Youngren, who also lives in Palm Springs, Calif., part of the year, is buying real estate in that city.

“The prices are very attractive,” he says. “Now is a good time to buy in selective locations. When things start turning around, they’ll turn around much more quickly in a resort area.”

Investing in real estate is not for the fainthearted, and McDonald and Youngren never were that.

What would they be doing in 2009, if they were hustling 30-somethings interested in real estate, and willing to take a risk?

Says Youngren, “Don’t panic. Things will come back. When the market is down like it is now, usually the smart people are buying.”

Says McDonald, “I’d buy all the real estate I could.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com