In some moods, I think that Seattle's business renaissance has peaked. Starbucks is contracting, Microsoft is stumbling, Boeing is losing bids, Safeco is sold, and Washington Mutual is sinking. Has our formula of rapid growth spreading across the globe run into the wall?
But then I look at the front page of today's "Marketplace" section of The Wall Street Journal, where three of the four stories are about Seattle-based companies. There's the story of Microsoft's scramble in the executive suite, with the sudden departure of Kevin Johnson, formerly in charge of the Yahoo merger campaign; Costco reporting an earnings squeeze as the prices for merchandise are rising faster than they can pass along costs to its value-seeking customers; and Amazon doubling its second-quarter profits as customers shift from shopping by car to shopping by online.
No shortage of ink on our local muscle brands! Maybe Seattle's world dominance can continue? On the other hand, what you see in all these stories is how dependent these companies are on national and worldwide economic trends, and how tough further expansion will be. The Northwest may be an island of prosperity, but these large firms (Paccar, Weyerhaeuser, and Nordstrom should also be included) with their excellent brand loyalties, are fully tied to larger economic trends like the weak dollar, fuel prices, consumer confidence, and tighter credit.
Still, there was no shortage of what used to be called "the Seattle Spirit" on display at the groundbreaking earlier this week for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, adjoining Seattle Center. Melinda Gates spoke, and she stressed how a "global outlook is the core of what we stand for," meaning Seattle, Microsoft, and the Foundation. That Foundation, she said, is "a catalyst for change around the world. She called its work "a massive collaboration for the 1 billion people of want." Mayor Greg Nickels also spoke eloquently at the occasion, saying Seattle is seen "as a city of hope around the world."
The groundbreaking took place in an unseasonably cool and gray morning, but there was plenty of warm hope in the air. It's hard not to think that the Gates Foundation, richest in the world and breathtaking in the scope of its ambition, will not come to be the leading symbol of a Seattle region that has reinvented itself again, jumped to the head of a new parade. A new era, focused on medical research and non-governmental solutions to global poverty, is struggling to be born out there in land that was donated by pioneer David Denny in 1889 and served as grounds for a World's Fair in 1962 that is still fueling Seattle's world-wide ambitions.
So too, the University of Washington is trying to put down seeds for another transformation of the regional economy, in this instance alternative energy technology and other ways of addressing the climate change issues. That would be a new College of the Environment, hoping to jump to the head of the parade of a few universities that are reorganizing around this theme. Some think that, as Stanford ushered in the computer age in Silicon Valley, so the UW could stimulate a vast new effort to create a post-carbon economy.
It's stunning to think, as Gates said at the ceremony, that as Boeing has altered world travel and Microsoft world communications, so this little city in the corner of the country could be preparing to lead two new transformations, in global health and environmental science. Whatever that Seattle elixir is, it's still in the water.