A big list of economic issues awaits the new mayor, from Amazon to housing and workforce development.
The Outrage Culture activists are — what else? — outraged that “establishment candidate” Jenny Durkan was elected Seattle mayor this past week. If she lives up to that criticism it will be a good thing for the economy.
The establishment in this town is the most progressive I’ve ever encountered. In other cities, Durkan would sit solidly center-left. She may flunk the purity test of the even more left-leaning City Council, but her pragmatism is a necessary counterweight.
With this in mind, here’s a potential do-list for the new mayor.
Amazon. Yes, kiss the ring. Meaning: Build a constructive relationship with the city’s largest private-sector employer and a huge generator of taxes and investment. It’s scandalous that this had been allowed to wither before the company announced it would build a second “equal” headquarters elsewhere.
Think we’re being taken to the cleaners? Some 238 localities in North America vying for HQ2 would love to be similarly processed, pressed and delivered. And they’ll pay for the privilege. We got the original headquarters through a hometown company’s organic growth, no big incentive packages.
Sure, I’d love a country with tough enforcement against the market power of giants. Until that happens, Seattle would be suicidal to unilaterally disarm. The region has two of the five Big Tech behemoths. That’s a huge advantage in the world as it is, however we might wish it to be.
Sure, Amazon was among the biggest donors to the pro-Durkan war chest of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber. But consider me un-appalled. Amazon — and all the jobs and small businesses it supports — has a lot riding on some sanity at City Hall. It’s not like we’re talking about the Koch brothers. Durkan deserves some credit for independence until she shows otherwise.
In the end, barring a breakup, Amazon won’t have two equal headquarters. A full-spectrum effort is necessary to make sure the real home base remains Seattle, and that includes political leadership.
Other companies. Attention also must be paid to other large employers and institutions, their needs, concerns and competitive issues. An ecosystem of large headquarters and important branch locations in a diverse economy ensures a much healthier small-business environment, too.
This is not an either-or issue, if one is interested in social justice. Progressive cities and states typically have much stronger economies than those that emphasize low taxes and light regulation. But a balance is needed.
Unlike most cities, the mayor’s office here doesn’t need to focus on business recruitment. The city’s appeal does that. But retention is an important issue and one that requires a fresh look. A head tax on large employers is especially wrongheaded, and would encourage them to send employees — and their tax dollars — to suburbs hungry for Seattle to do a face-plant.
Housing. Like other extremely desirable cities, especially those with limited area, Seattle is expensive. But barring a catastrophe that would most hurt the less affluent, this is the new reality. We’re not going back to Seattle circa 1985. Life is unfair. I want to live in London but can’t afford it. I want a pony.
The most effective remedy is to think and act regionally. Parts of the metropolitan area are significantly more affordable, especially in the South Sound. The mayor can play a major role in speeding up and expanding rail transit to provide fast, frequent connections between these areas and the employment centers of Seattle (and pushing for faster links to Ballard and West Seattle, too).
Beyond that, the city’s future is dense and vertical in more places. Midtown Manhattan was once farmland. But this needs to be carried out with care. Single-family neighborhoods are not the enemy.
Continuing some version of the Housing Affordability and Livability plan is also necessary. It’s not perfect. But unlike the Bay Area, Seattle is actually building.
Workforce development. At the risk of quoting Ronald Reagan in bluetown, “the best social program is a job.” But with dramatic structural changes in the economy, offshoring, automation and the destruction of unions, a job alone is not enough.
Seattle especially benefits from the University of Washington in producing high-skilled tech talent at the top end. The challenge is lower-skilled people who can get stuck in poorly paid jobs that lack the ladder up that once existed.
As with so much else here, some realism is necessary. City government can do only so much to change this condition. The $15 minimum wage was a start, made possible by a thriving private-sector economy. Otherwise, the most important initiatives must come from the federal government, such as major investment in infrastructure and education (a longshot in this era of total GOP control). States can do some (a better shot now that we’ve become part of the Blue Wall).
Still, the mayor can be an important bridge between community colleges and the private sector in job training. Finding the way to move more service-sector jobs into higher skills and creativity, hence better wages, is an opportunity Seattle should seize.
Connectivity. It’s appalling that even in this tech town most people have few options for high-speed broadband internet. Yet efforts to build city nets, or even regulate the giants more, run up against the lobbying and legal power of the cartel giants.
Durkan is untested in this type of executive role. As her predecessor Mike McGinn learned, to his chagrin, “there’s no school for mayors.”
Seattle can’t take its past success for granted. It certainly didn’t happen because of the genius of the City Council, but because of luck, geography and, especially, generations of stewardship and reinvention led by both business and political leaders.
These good times won’t last, either. The threats range from North Korea and Donald Trump to a downturn that slams tech hard. City Hall will learn where its revenue comes from. So Mayor Durkan should be prepared.
And (pro tip), plow the streets if it snows.