The Puget Sound region looks to Seattle for leadership yet also resents it. In economic tough times and while planning for growth in the future, many are calling for more coherent, even cooperative, planning. But it's tough to overcome the competitiveness that's been in our genes since the pioneer days. Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, and scores of smaller cities are still competing for a share of the regional pie.
Seattle is the 900-pound gorilla of Pugetopolis, a job center, the biggest city in the state, the essence of the region's identity: Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon. Even Microsoft, headquartered in Redmond, is almost universally referred to as a "Seattle company." But the region isn't content basking in Seattle's glow.
Seattle became the regionally dominant force after the Klondike boom more than a century ago, but as Pugetopolis has sprawled and its cities have flourished, strong interests still exist outside the city limits. The Puget Sound Regional Council was brought into being to help the region cohere around planning, yet it is not, by design, a regional government. Its vision for the future sees growth and prosperity shared among various urbanized hubs (Lynnwood, Bel-Red). But underneath the vision, on the ground, there's still a sense that one place's success comes at the expense of others. No one really trusts Seattle to lead, except, perhaps, by asserting its primacy.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is about to leave the stage and the transition is resetting the discussion of Seattle's regional leadership role. Nickels is not the first Seattle leader to prove unpopular around Puget Sound (see the disillusionment with Sims, Ron), but during his time in office Nickels did manage to piss off the provinces, and vice versa. He whined publicly that the region was not lining up behind his agenda for Seattle and complained (or joked) to Seattle City Club that the city ought to secede from the region, a venting statewide editorialists called "arrogant" and "absurd." The tantrum was mostly staged to remind everyone just how big and important Seattle really is.
That kind of "it's my ball and we play by my rules or I'll go home" has not made the city popular around the Sound or state, or in Olympia (or as the primary demonstrated, in Seattle.) Seattle, in fact, is ringed by circles of resentment that in some ways recapitulate the way Seattle's own neighborhoods regard downtown and city government: a top-down bully that serves the powerful entrenched interests at the expense of the the people.
The most recent Seattle outrage was the Nickels-led effort to entice the Frank Russell investment company to re-locate in downtown Seattle — competing with a neighbor as you might compete, say, to keep Boeing from moving factory work to South Carolina. The Seattle-Tacoma rivalry is long and deep, and the railroad-run Tacoma was once the dominant "City of Destiny" but lost out. Mired in second-cityness, it's a city of endless potential where critical mass seems always to be just out of reach. After untold numbers of urban "Renaissances," Tacoma's destiny still eludes.
Seattle did bag the Russell company, thanks mostly to the Great Recession. Russell was able to pick up the emptying WaMu tower for pennies on the dollar. But Tacoma isn't likely to forget Seattle's stealing its largest downtown private employer. Seattle looked bad in victory by bigfooting a neighbor striving for similar urbanization goals. It damaged itself as a regional leader. Few cheer for Godzilla to stomp on Bambi.
Seattle should realize there are consequences to such behavior, especially if the city you enrage is a key part of regional transportation strategies — and even more so when you hurt a town with powerful patrons, including earmarking Congressman Norm Dicks and an Olympia delegation affectionately referred to as "the Pierce County Mafia." The Tacoma News Tribune issued a post-Russell warning to Seattle, and in the process reminded the city of an earlier slight:
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