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Originally published September 9, 2009 at 12:09 PM | Page modified September 10, 2009 at 9:20 AM

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On the Economy

Russell Investments' move takes focus off real competition: the world

Seattle was wounded when thousands of WaMu jobs were lost, as well as others gone from the loss of Safeco's independence and closing of Macy's regional headquarters. The 900 from Russell will only begin to refill that hole.

Special to The Seattle Times

Consider it a bittersweet win in hard times.

That's the proper face Seattle should wear for coming out on top in the competition for the headquarters of Russell Investments, whose 900 employees will work downtown in the former WaMu Center.

The decision is not surprising. Downtown Seattle has critical mass, international cachet and, most of all, cheap office space, thanks to the neutron bomb set off by the collapse of Washington Mutual.

For Tacoma, the news is just bitter. The company was founded there in 1936 and was a bulwark of community leadership. Unfortunately, once Northwestern Mutual acquired Russell in 1999, Tacoma became a branch office of this Milwaukee giant.

Take note, Seattle. Let this crown sit uneasy on your head.

For the region, it's a win and a loss. At least Russell, which has been retrenching because of the crash and has laid off 200 employees, is remaining in the Puget Sound region. That's no small accomplishment as industry consolidation continues.

Russell could have gone to Charlotte, N.C., also awash in office space, or to the mother ship in Wisconsin. It also could have gone to a suburban office park, increasing car dependency.

Still, this is no way to run a regional economic strategy, one city plucking another's prime asset. Such Balkanization has led to costly, zero-sum-game fights in other metro areas.

It takes the focus off the real competition, which is metro against metro, all over the world. We're in a race with Shanghai, Singapore, Dublin, on and on, for the two mobile ingredients that spell prosperity: talent and capital.

So far, this doesn't seem like a fatal blow to regional cooperation. It seems, rather, like a decision made by the out-of-town owners, probably for a variety of reasons and despite ample incentives offered by Tacoma.

Which is not to say that Tacoma leaders won't face a political backlash for letting the most prominent local employer get away. Or that regional leaders assume the area can simply cruise along and wait for the next wave of job creation.

These are hard times. The pie has stopped growing and the remaining slices are in play. Look at the paranoia about Boeing and South Carolina.

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One especially mangled slice is financial services. While the big bosses of the biggest banks try to get back to business as usual, employment has been decimated and scores of institutions have failed, including WaMu. What's left is consolidated more than ever in New York, Charlotte and San Francisco.

This sector lends itself to large downtown towers, especially at the headquarters level. So Seattle was wounded when thousands of WaMu jobs were lost, as well as others gone from the loss of Safeco's independence and the closing of Macy's regional headquarters. The 900 from Russell will only begin to refill that hole.

Meanwhile, a new crater will open in downtown Tacoma.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com.

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About On the Economy

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

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