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Originally published April 12, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified April 13, 2014 at 8:24 AM

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Seattle needs to get off bench in global-investment game

As Jet City and a region that is home to some of the world’s iconic companies, it has been easy to be inward-looking in some ways while a world of potential investment swooshes past. Grabbing more of it is important.


Special to The Seattle Times

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Jon needs to be translated. ------------"Competing against many places with advanced transit and rail, King County is... MORE

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We are torn about being a global city. I’ve argued that we have no choice; “lesser Seattle” won’t be the sweet city of memory.

I also suspect if an outsider suggested we are not a globally competitive region, even the most nostalgic mossback would leap to the barricades. What about Boeing? Microsoft? Amazon? Washington as one of the most trade-dependent states in the nation?

All true, but last week’s announcement by Boeing that it would move a thousand engineering jobs from the Puget Sound area to Southern California — not known for its low costs and light regulation — is a reminder not to be smug.

By one measure, the three companies above plus the University of Washington make up 30 percent of the private-sector jobs in metro Seattle. That’s an uncomfortable dependence.

An even more compelling smack across the head comes from the Boston Consulting Group, one of the big three international management consultancies. Last fall, it produced a report for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber on the region’s global competitiveness.

It measured Seattle against eight medium-sized metros: San Francisco; Boston; Vancouver, B.C.; Singapore; Melbourne, Australia; Amsterdam; Stockholm; and Hamburg, Germany.

We came in fifth out of nine based on 51 separate measurements.

Our biggest strength is human capital. We attract and retain an outsized group of the world’s most talented people.

The weaknesses included global business influence and connectedness, something exacerbated by the absence of a real international air hub. We are weak on infrastructure, especially transportation. And the region is below average on attracting foreign direct investment, such as the Philips medical-device plant in Bothell.

We can make plenty of excuses about being measured against such powerhouses, but this is the real competition for talent and capital that can go anywhere.

This is the battle for quality growth in a slow-growth world. It’s not Seattle vs. Bellevue or Tacoma. To measure us against, say, Phoenix or Oklahoma City, would only invite complacency.

So last week’s announcement that the Brookings Institution has chosen metro Seattle to be part of its Global Cities Initiative is welcome. In this case, the prime goal is to help boost foreign direct investment (FDI).

As Jet City and a region that is home to some of the world’s iconic companies, it has been easy to be inward-looking in some ways while a world of potential investment swooshes past. Grabbing more of it is important. Gov. Jay Inslee has also made increasing FDI for Washington a priority.

Amy Liu, a Brookings senior fellow and co-director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, was here last week for the announcement. She reinforced the point that metros are the prime units of competition today. But Seattle has been lagging on FDI or even seeking it out.

Foreign affiliates not only make products and deliver services for the domestic market but also for exporting. They can provide a boost for local small- and medium-sized businesses, helping ease our dependence on a few big employers.

“Exporting” and engagement in the world economy “forces innovation,” Liu said.

The heavier lifting will come in addressing many other deficiencies cited in the consultant’s report.

The region is burdened by a do-little Legislature, especially on transportation, university funding and improving the pipeline from schools into jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Competing against many places with advanced transit and rail, King County is divided over merely maintaining existing bus service.

For Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber, a priority is to “get there fast” in addressing competitive issues. But civic, nonprofit and government entities can’t do it alone.

“We have to engage our global private-sector folks, especially the uber CEOs.

“Make the case that we would love you to be investors and leaders of the effort. Can we make that happen? I don’t know. But it’s got to be shaped by these folks and their enterprises,” she said.

In other words, the best plans still need business leaders who can arrange connections, write checks and, when necessary, knock heads.

Seattle enjoys an enviable history of civic stewards. But we will need more of the top executives to step up to this competitive challenge.

One thing that shouldn’t happen is for these efforts to be sidetracked into the gloss of “building a better brand.”

Someone at a sit-down last week said Seattle is known worldwide only for “grunge and rain.”

Really? If that came from a poll, the respondents might be a tad out of touch. That’s like me saying I only know Hamburg for the 1943 Allied firebombing of the city, instead of its world-class port, high-speed trains and Germany’s universal health insurance and strong union-apprentice program.

Hamburg also ranked 17th worldwide in the Mercer Quality of Living Survey (Seattle, 44).

Our rivals surely know more about us than rain and grunge. They don’t care about roadblocks such as the Legislature and petty, self-destructive conflicts within the region. And to be fair, we can always market ourselves more.

But especially on foreign direct investment, we need to show up. We must be in the game.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com



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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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