Seattle and Iceland enjoy many deep bonds

The small country has an outsized presence in our region. A recent arts festival in Reykjavik, honoring sister-city Seattle, drew the two regions and economies closer together.

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Minningarnott festival time in Reykjavik.

The small country has an outsized presence in our region. A recent arts festival in Reykjavik, honoring sister-city Seattle, drew the two regions and economies closer together.

Iceland is a significant business, educational, and cultural partner of our region. Reykjavik is a sister city of Seattle, and this relationship presented me with the opportunity to explore the surprisingly broad existing relations and investigate new opportunities.  This is the 25th anniversary of the relationship. And keep in mind that the Icelandic population in our region is the biggest outside of Iceland.

Reykjavik has an annual cultural festival, Menningarnott, which most of the island’s population of 310,000 attends. The focus of the event is usually on an Icelandic city, but this year Seattle was honored. The festival organizers requested a visual artist, performing artist, and a small delegation. I was asked to be the visual artist, displaying photos from my 2010 exhibition at MOHAI.  Members of the Quileute tribe, a Chapman stick artist, and the Giraffe Puppet Theater provided the performances. Delta Airlines provided the transportation. Starbucks served Seattle Best Coffee and Ste Michelle assisted with a wine tasting.

The venue was city hall, the center of the downtown and the festival.  The Seattle festivities were opened by the mayor of Reykjavik and by the American ambassador, who strongly assisted the Seattle effort.  Ambassador Luis Arreaga was the counsel general in Vancouver BC during the 2005 period and visited Seattle on a number of occasions. The effort was primarily organized by the sister city committee with assistance from the Trade Alliance and Keith Orton at Seattle’s city hall.

It was a tremendous success.  Over a five-hour period, thousands attended our city hall venue. City Hall is located in Reykjavik’s center, but Menningarnott was not just at City Hall. The entire downtown was closed to car traffic and the morning began with a marathon. Bands played all over the city. All museums were open without admission fees. Performances lasted far into the night.  It was a festival atmosphere.

The event was just another bridge between Iceland and our region. The country suffered a major economic crisis in 2008 when the banks became overextended and suffered a financial meltdown. The government did not bail out the banks, so did not create a sovereign debt crisis. The economy has been recovering since the third quarter of 2009. While there are still economic issues, there has been a steady recovery. Their major market is Europe but the Scandinavian countries are in better shape than the rest of Europe.  Their fundamentals are sound.

Iceland has a number of economic assets that support the recovery, such as a highly educated workforce and excellent universities. The University of Iceland has a strong relationship with UW, including a scholarship program sending engineering students to UW.  This program has been in operation for a number of years and I met senior engineers who participated.  The Iceland Heart Association also has a strong research relationship with UW. Education and research remain strong Iceland assets.

Iceland has birth, death, and marriage records that go back for over 1,000 years. These records married to DNA allow medical genetic research. There are a number of research institutes — covering topics including cardiology, breast cancer and aging — that are doing this work. The Iceland Heart Association has a strong collaboration with UW. A private company, DeCode Genetics, is part of this effort. The University of Iceland has a medical research program including genetics and is interested in expanding collaboration with UW. 

Additionally, Iceland is the center of expertise in geothermal energy. All of the electricity in Iceland is generated from either hydro or geothermal sources. It is the cleanest energy country in the world and with gas at $8 per gallon, there is limited pollution. Iceland is now attractiing aluminum plants, data centers, and other firms depending on cheap energy.

That expertise might be useful to our state. Snohomish Country, this August, began drilling a geothermal test well and the state Department of Natural Resources has done a study of promising locations. Next to one geothermal plant is a spa called the Blue Lagoon, with a pool of mineral water that is the outflow from the operation of the plant. You walk in at age 50, put blue mud on your face, and leave the pool as a 22-year-old. It is difficult to find who you came with.

The remainder of the Icelandic economy includes IT, fishing and fishing equipment, outdoor fashion, and tourism.

It is a small place but with outsized commercial, cultural, and educational ties to our state.  For example, drive over the Magnolia Bridge and you will see the Marel plant, which provides 200 jobs making fish-processing equipment. Iceland Air has Boeing equipment and will soon begin replacing its fleet.  A visit to the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard will reveal the cultural ties. The museum is planning a Nordic fashion event on Sept. 30-Oct.1, partnering with the Nordic House in Reykjavik. A visit to the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union will give a feel for the various fishing villages along the Iceland Coast.

The visit reinforced my belief that cultural ties and relationships such as sister cities are valuable to our region. The CEO of Iceland Air asked me to get Starbucks to open a store in Reykjavik.  I told him he should serve Starbucks on the flights to and from Seattle. This might lead to a quid pro quo.

The final lesson from Iceland was the photographic journey we took at the end of the visit, a farm holiday. The drive around Iceland is five nights and six days of amazing scenery and impressive waterfalls. As I drove, I wondered if you could have an organized and promoted farm holiday leaving from Seattle and driving to Eastern Washington, staying at country inns, B&B's, and farmhouses as they have organized in Iceland.


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