Officials from Seattle city government and the Port of Seattle visited Hamburg, Germany, this month to see how its historic port and thriving city balance the maritime industry with rapid development.

Share story

Let’s play “Name the Metropolis.” This growing city has a historic downtown port, big-time aerospace manufacturing, a booming tech sector and a reputation for openness.

The answer could be Seattle. But it could also be Hamburg, the German city that Port of Seattle and Seattle city-government leaders visited this month on a study tour.

The Port arranged the five-day tour with help from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonprofit that works to strengthen ties between the two countries.

Four City Council members went on the $100,000 trip, as did Mayor Ed Murray’s transportation director, economic-development director and regional-affairs director. They joined Port CEO Ted Fick, three port commissioners and port staff members.

The tour gave the Port leaders time to lobby their Seattle counterparts while showing off Hamburg, which has remained committed to its maritime industry amid rapid development.

The Port of Hamburg, founded in 1189, has truly stood the test of time.

Port of Seattle leaders want to protect the city’s industrial lands from redevelopment, while city officials are tasked with accommodating new residents and businesses.

The most recent flashpoint: Debate over siting a sports arena in Sodo. In May, the council sided with the Port and unionized maritime-industry workers, voting 5-4 against giving up part of Occidental Avenue South to entrepreneur Chris Hansen for an arena.

In Hamburg, “there were a lot of conversations” about the tug of war between industry and real-estate development, said Councilmember Tim Burgess, who made the trip with along Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Debra Juarez and Sally Bagshaw.

“We had our meals together and rode the bus together,” Burgess said. “There weren’t specific action items. The Port didn’t say, ‘We want X. We want Y.’ It was about relationship building.”

Port Commissioner Tom Albro agreed. “You have some conversations that are harder when you’re talking about home,” he said. “And you get to know each other.”

The Port spent almost $75,000 to organize and carry out the trip. None of that money came from the Port’s property-tax levy, according to spokesman Peter McGraw.

The city spent more than $28,000 in taxpayer money to send seven participants to Germany. Burgess paid his own airfare using non-taxpayer money in an office fund.

Albro came up with the idea for the tour after noticing similarities between Seattle and Hamburg. “You see the same tensions that you see in Seattle,” he said.

What’s Hamburg doing right? Albro said the Germany city has cultivated clusters of businesses in certain sectors, such as aviation and logistics, and has included maritime and manufacturing jobs alongside tech jobs in its vision for the future.

“The best chance Seattle has to remain a middle-class city is with clusters,” the port commissioner said. “We have a strong maritime cluster already. What do we want for future generations? We want a diverse economy. Not everybody wants to code.”

Albro said Hamburg is doing a good job of supporting small- and medium-sized businesses. He said officials there talked about high-tech factories needing less space.

The main message that Seattle city officials heard from Port leaders on the Hamburg tour was, “Don’t give up on us,” and it came across “loud and clear,” Burgess said.

It certainly stuck with Brian Surratt, Murray’s economic-development director.

“We need a diverse economic base,” he said back in Seattle. “We need to be really smart about the future of our industrial lands. Hamburg has some strict protections for industrial lands, especially when it comes to industrial lands that are water dependent.”

In August, Murray convened an Industrial Lands Advisory Panel to come up with recommendations for how Seattle should balance growth with its maritime and manufacturing needs. The mayor plans to send a plan to the council early next year.

Surratt said, “The trip expanded my view of the possibilities for industrial lands. We need to be careful. Once they go away, they go away forever. They’re very precious.”

What struck Burgess more was how Hamburg has been able to redevelop property alongside maritime operations, he said. The Hafen City development, located on 400 acres of underused port property, includes high-rise housing, shops and a concert hall.

Burgess doesn’t think such a huge conversion would make sense in Seattle, but seeing Hafen City reinforced his belief that more redevelopment can happen, he said.

The Port might not like it, but Burgess said he would like to see zoning changes allowing more homes and stores near CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field.

“We could do a better job of letting the stadium district become a real neighborhood,” Burgess said. “When you talk about proximity, Hamburg has done that well.”

Another part of the tour looked at job training in Hamburg. In Germany’s dual vocational training program, students split time between hands-on training and classroom study. Companies such as Airbus hire straight from the program.

In a blog post, Bagshaw said Seattle should create its own program with companies such as Boeing. Enrolling 10 percent of public-school students would be the goal.