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Originally published Saturday, December 21, 2013 at 6:00 PM

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Fancy SeaTac hotel at center of wage debate

A SeaTac hotel that was going to lay off workers and struggle with a $15 minimum wage has instead launched a $16 million expansion. Maybe the wage isn’t so crippling after all?


Seattle Times staff columnist

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For all the naysayers about Cedarbrook's location and its future viability, you must... MORE
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First of all the process to expand Cedarbrook was started before Prop #1 came up ($15... MORE

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Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac is more than just a fancy retreat. It also keeps finding itself a symbol of our economic times.

It was built by Washington Mutual (remember them?), so it first became a monument to the subprime- and hubris-fueled boom. Then it became scraps of the crash, when the feds shut down WAMU and all but gave the declining conference center to Chase Bank.

After being sold in 2009 and reborn as a hotel, Cedarbrook this year became the very public face of opposition to the $15 minimum wage movement.

The manager was the most outspoken of all against the Proposition 1 measure in SeaTac, saying a $15 wage could turn the town into an economic desert island.

At one public hearing Scott Ostrander’s anguish about the wage law was palpable.

“I am shaking here tonight because I am going to be forced to lay people off for something that is not their fault,” he told the crowd. “I’m going to take away their livelihood. That hurts.

“This initiative will destroy this community.”

Well, now Cedarbrook is a symbol for an entirely different reason: that maybe raising the wage to $15 is no big deal after all.

Three days after a hand recount certified that Proposition 1 passed, Cedarbrook broke ground on a $16 million expansion. The project will add 63 rooms, a 3,350-square-foot spa and — most notably when it’s done — 25 new jobs.

So the hotel is going to be hiring, not firing.

Ostrander says he stands by what he said in the campaign.

“All the statements I made are as true today as they were yesterday,” he says. “This wage law is going to be tough on many, many businesses in SeaTac.

“Mine is just one business, out of the 73 directly affected, and we have figured out a way to get through it.”

Ostrander said Cedarbrook decided to forge ahead with the long-talked-about expansion now because of the wage law (which, pending court challenges, is set to take effect Jan. 1).

“This expansion is a method to get us more revenue to offset the costs and burdens of Proposition 1,” he said. “The expansion basically is to allow us to stay in business.”

I have been a skeptic since day one of the $15 wage drive. The goal is worthy, but using government power to force, overnight, a 60 percent shift in private wages seems almost certain to trigger unforeseen consequences.

But talk about unforeseen! I don’t think even the law’s most starry-eyed backers figured any business, let alone this one, would respond by pouring this much money in, to nearly double in size. Spending $16 million at one hotel is major economic activity in SeaTac. (Cedarbrook was bought for just $9 million in 2009.)

Ostrander said it’s a boutique hotel, with big-money backers, so it should be considered an outlier. Fair point. Sandwich shops or car-rental parking lots probably can’t absorb higher wage costs as easily.

“That we found a way to adapt does not mean everybody will,” he said.

Given this story, I think it’s wise to take a “wait-and-see” approach on that.

Regardless, Cedarbrook’s turn as a symbol of the income-inequality era probably is just getting started. That’s because one of Cedarbrook’s owners happens to be Howard S. Wright III — who last week was appointed by Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray to co-chair a new committee on whether to raise the minimum wage in Seattle.

Wright told me he’s open to raising wages, and he’s not involved day-to-day with Cedarbrook. Still, due to the hotel’s prominence in the SeaTac debate, the first time he raises concerns about a $15 wage — that it could cause hardship, say — the combative response is likely to be: “Oh, like it didn’t at your hotel?”

“I don’t see it that way,” Wright said. “Every business is different. That’s the real challenge in Seattle — how to narrow the wage gap while honoring all types of businesses out there.”

No crystal ball, but the symbols seem to be saying: Expect a $15 wage in Seattle in the new year.

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



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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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