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Originally published Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Don't let Boeing slip away

In one town, all that's left of the largest employer, a rubber-parts factory where I worked as a teenager, is a weedy field. The second-largest employer, a...

Seattle Times staff columnist

In one town, all that's left of the largest employer, a rubber-parts factory where I worked as a teenager, is a weedy field. The second-largest employer, a college, stands abandoned.

In another town, a tire factory that employed thousands sits empty. Fifteen percent of the population has drained away in two decades. Downtown, the windows of old brick stores are covered with plywood.

These are the places my wife and I grew up, in the Midwest. We went last week to visit family.

By the time I got back to Seattle, I was thinking two things. One, we Seattleites are spoiled rotten. Two, we won't know how good we've got it until it's gone.

The big news in my wife's hometown, Decatur, Ill., was that the city was hoping against hope it might be a stop on a new federally funded high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis. A rail stop wasn't much, they said. But it was something.

The big headline in my town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was about how locals were hoping against hope they might be able to reboot the defunct college, Antioch.

The cities that raised us aren't dead. They remain active places, where people have families and start businesses and dream. But as towns they are dwindling. Living in Seattle, you forget what shrinking feels like.

"We're running on fumes," one shop owner in my hometown was quoted recently. "We can't pay our cops, we can barely maintain our roads. What worries me is that we are going to have derelict buildings in the middle of the community."

What are we worried about around Seattle?

Next month we're voting on ... plastic bags.

Over in Bellevue on Monday they passed an ordinance cracking down on ... grocery carts.

The big issue in the Seattle mayor's race so far has been ... what? Sidewalks? Snow removal? I don't know; I can't really tell.

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And so our own big news hit me with unusual force yesterday. It felt like Midwestern news. For the first time in its 93-year history, Boeing has bought a plane-building plant on the East Coast. The plant happens to have vacant land next to it. The worry: sooner or later, Boeing's out of here.

We ought to drop whatever other nonsense we're doing to stop that from happening.

Some of you will say: Forget Boeing. We've already given them the store. Not only did they botch the 787 Dreamliner rollout like no plane in Boeing history, now this is the thanks we get for granting them $3 billion in tax breaks? More threats?

There's truth to all that.

Others of you will blame Boeing's unions. Lately the Machinists have seemed to go on strike as casually as most of us go on vacation. There's truth to that.

Let me just say this was the exact squabbling I heard in the Midwest. "They" were to blame. The unions. Corporate greed or mismanagement. The government. The globalizing, flattening outside world.

Maybe all of the above. I don't know. I do know the arguments sound damn hollow when you hear them echoing around a graveyard. In the empty field that once was a factory supporting middle-class families two blocks from your boyhood home. In the faded downtown where your wife bicycled to go shopping when she was a girl.

Sure, Seattle's bigger and badder than one-trick Rust Belt towns. We've got Microsoft. Besides, Boeing's acting like it's out of here no matter what we do.

All true. But take it from a Midwest boy whose town learned the hard way. We'll miss Boeing a lot more once they're gone than we'll miss whatever we give up to keep them here.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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