Wake up, folks! Bill Stafford's parting shots on the region's economy

The author, stepping down from directing the Trade Alliance of Greater Seattle for the past 20 years, distills what he has learned, warns against local complacency, and issues some stiff challenges to leaders and voters.

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Bill Stafford, Seattle's world citizen

The author, stepping down from directing the Trade Alliance of Greater Seattle for the past 20 years, distills what he has learned, warns against local complacency, and issues some stiff challenges to leaders and voters.

John Wayne in one of his classic westerns was riding into the sunset after retirement from the cavalry when a rider caught up with him and said he had a position with the army as a scout. On July 1 I will also ride toward the sunset (although not entirely leaving the movie). I have heard a few hoof beats, but that may be a posse.

I have been fortunate for the past 20 years serving as president of the Trade Alliance, responsible for promoting our metro area’s international economic interests. I have been also serving on the Economic Development District Board that oversees our economic strategy as well as university, community college, museums, PortJobs, and other involvements. It has been an excellent platform to watch how this community works.

The Trade Alliance is one of only a few organizations that transcend the metro area. It is also one of the most complicated, being composed of leaders from business, government, and education. It tried to occupy the ground above the fragmentation of our  government structures, our siloed business interests, partisan value differences, and competitive rivalries. My associates told me 20 years ago that it would not survive, that I would have too may balls to juggle.

Twenty years ago the global economy was very competitive as the world emerged from the Cold War. Former Chamber President George Duff saw the change and created the Trade Development Alliance concept based on a Dutch model. Today, the fight for economic success and jobs is even greater and this trend will continue. The American public is beginning to recognize the changed circumstances, and the unfortunate reaction has been growing protectionism. On one hand people want cheap goods, and on the other hand a job.

These changed circumstances will require strong leadership at the national, state, and local level as we adjust our institutions for a new century. Here are some observations on these challenges, gleaned from 20 years of being on the front lines.

First discovery: The metropolitan area is the basis of success in the global marketplace, but ours doesn't really function that way. No one in Munich or Shanghai knows that 145th  is the north Seattle boundary and 205th the county boundary. On globes, we are a big blob, known as Seattle. The blob has over 80 cities, four counties, and many more special districts and agencies. It is complicated. There is no single platform for metro leadership, requiring a collaborative approach.

How the metro system works is critical to economic success. It is our global brand or image. We need to reexamine our local structures that were created during a horse and buggy era. Can we have a competitive economy with 19th century institutions?

Second axiom: We need to be more strategic about our economic future. The economy is the hub of most world-city strategies. Transportation, land use, and other strategies build off of economic strategy. How will we employ our citizens needs to be a greater part of the local conversation, along with sustainability and how to preserve the social safety net. We just went through a legislative session where education, research, and economic development were low priorities. Rather than thinking long-term, we have allowed the next election and the next quarterly report to rule our society.

Third principle: Our region is intertwined with the global economy whether we like it or not. Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, PACCAR, Port, universities, Gates Foundation, PATH — all our institutions are doing business or work all over the world. If you are a barber or a barista, one in three customers is paying from the international work.

So what did I learn? We do not study what our competitors are doing. We feel our system is the best so we can ignore others. The role of government is different in these other countries, and we need to understand this. Our companies must compete against government agencies. Elsewhere, many countries have coherent strategies to penetrate our markets and to develop local products to eliminate imports from us. They allow intellectual property theft; they strongly assist with subsidies to attract investment.

We can no longer ignore competitive practices with others, and building walls does not work. For now, our companies are torn between competitive imperatives and being good corporate citizens.

Next, we must recognize that all our international business interests are interrelated — marine ports and air cargo, goods and services, international students, investment attraction, and tourism. The Trade Alliance integrated all of these in its promotional activity. We need to keep our current customers pleased while we focus on markets of the future. Personal relationships are important. We need to pool resources in tight times and not return to a model of having one person on each organization’s staff who spends all their time coordinating with counterparts. We need to allow our elected officials who set our business climate to go on business and study missions to better understand what is happening in the world and promote and connect our region. A local official who takes such a trip is fired. Overseas, a local official who is not out selling his or her city is fired.

I learned that we have enormous assets in our region but we cannot be smug. We have a great port and logistics complex. We have two of the world’s top research universities. We have leading institutions in biotech, clean energy, retail, aerospace, outdoor recreation products, global development, tourism — as well as mature industries of agriculture, fishing, and wood products. We are blessed. Sadly, this feeds complacency. For instance, our research universities are the heart of this economy so we should be strengthening them, not starving them of funding.

Ask the candidates for their economic strategy and programs that will assist our economy. You do not need bicycle lanes if there are no jobs.

The West Coast representative for Enterprise Scotland recently spoke to a Trade Alliance committee. He started by noting he was Scotch and they were tight with their money. Scotland has 5.2 million people and Washington State 6.7 million. The agency has 390 personal promoting trade and investment while we have fewer than 40. The agency's metrics were impressive in terms of job creation. By contrast, "Invest in America" in our Commerce Department has three personnel. 

So here are some things you can do to respond to these challenges. As you examine the campaign websites during this election cycle, go to the coffee hours and listen to the speeches, ask the candidates for their economic strategy and programs that will assist our economy. You do not need bicycle lanes if there are no jobs.

We have recently been told that the state’s revenue forecast was overstated so the prayers that the economy would revive on its own were not answered. The return to an over 9 percent unemployment rate was not encouraging. The unemployment rate for those with a high school degree or less is woeful. The social agencies are learning that without revenue, there is no service.

And remember, a good speechwriter can mask the fact that the words paint a movie set. It’s the budget and personnel assigned that are important. I recently heard an excellent speech on the economy of a part of the country where the government has eliminated most of its commitment to economic development. Look at the budget. As one government official once said, “You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say.” 

John Wayne received acting parts to the end. Come July, I will purchase an eye patch and begin trying out for the role of Rooster Cogburn of Seattle.


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