The 1971 “turn out the lights” billboard message is back as Seattle is embroiled in the head tax battle. Its creators react.
The message and the image are seared into the collective memory of Seattle.
“Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights,” said the billboard that was put up in April 1971 for all of 15 days.
Now, because of the $275-per-employee head tax passed unanimously last week by the Seattle City Council, that 47-year-old message has come back.
In expressing its opposition to the tax on the city’s largest employers, such as Amazon, the Northwest Ironworkers Council issued a statement that remembered the billboard:
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“So, here we are today, enjoying the economic success of our collaborative efforts over the past 47 years, and now the Seattle City Council wants to turn out the lights again.”
The statement came after dozens of iron workers, in their work helmets and orange vests, crashed a rally held by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a supporter of the tax, at the Amazon Spheres on May 3. “No head tax! No head tax!” they chanted as Sawant tried to speak.
It was a confrontation rich in irony: Sawant, the socialist whose rhetoric is about the working class, being shouted down by a group of its members. Some of those workers were likely not even born in 1971.
That’s when this was a Boeing town — not an Amazon town — and when air travel leveled off and fewer jets were being ordered, and more than 60,000 jobs were cut here.
What do the creators of the 1971 sign think of how their billboard’s message has come back again?
Bob McDonald, of Seattle, now 81, and Jim Youngren, of Orcas Island, now 78, were the two real-estate agents who dreamed up the sign.
In 1971, they were hustling real-estate agents with desks across from each other.
Somehow, the idea of the billboard came up. Put it up by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Pacific Highway South, and investors arriving would see its grim message. But then they would see there was plenty of life in Seattle.
Over the years, both men prospered in real estate.
McDonald did so well in apartment-complex sales that he retired at age 46 and has traveled to over 200 countries, says his wife, Carol McDonald.
He could not be interviewed for this story because in late 2015, she says, while visiting in Fort Myers, Florida, he was the victim of a botched robbery attempt outside a condo where the couple was staying. He was knocked down some concrete steps and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
But before then, she says, McDonald and his friends did discuss Seattle politics.
“He was never real political,” she said. “He always had been liberal, but the extreme he felt the city was headed was something he didn’t like.”
She says there has been some “serious discussion” among the friends about bringing back the billboard. They certainly have the ability to do so.
Youngren also did well in real estate. In 1979, along with Weyerhaeuser Real Estate, he co-founded the Cornerstone Development Co.
These days, he says, his passion is the Long Live the Kings nonprofit to restore wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and bringing back “Lolita,” also known as Tokitae, to her family of resident killer whales here. She was captured in 1970 and is one of the top attractions at the Miami Seaquarium.
Youngren has a little different take on what is going on in Seattle politics than his old friend might have articulated.
“You can’t afford to live in Seattle anymore, which is a shame. I’m kind of supportive of the left side of this issue,” he says.
Remembering when he was a developer, Youngren says, “We did a lot of development in Seattle. We built moderate-income apartments. You don’t just have a city for the upper 10 to 15 percent who can afford to live there. There has to be a certain amount of balance. Pretty soon, we’ll be the next Carmel, California. Where are the poor people going to move out to? I don’t know.”
Youngren says that he doesn’t keep up much these days with Seattle politics.
“Kshama Sawant — I’ve heard of her. She’s a socialist, isn’t she?”
Oh, well, he says. “Salmon and saving the orca, that’s pretty much my effort now,” says Youngren.
T.M. Sell, author of the Boeing history book “Wings of Power” and a professor of political economy at Highline Community College, says the early 1970s were a scary time.
“People didn’t know what to do,” he said. “That’s when we got food banks. We lose sight of how jobs are not something you get out of a catalog. I got laid off from newspapers in the early ’80s. It’s the worst you can feel. It’s like you failed. You blame yourself first.”
So he understands why the iron workers went to tell Sawant exactly how they felt.
“It’s cooking the golden goose. People tend to look at Amazon having a pile of cash, and they should do something,” said Sell, meaning, for example, tackling the issue of homelessness.
“To some extent, they should. But you push them too far, they’ll leave.”