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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

December 24, 2009 at 10:20 AM

Nordstrom shows once again why headquarters and civic stewards matter

Nordstrom’s decision to lease office space in the downtown skyscraper owned by the Seattle Art Museum is one more reason why I’ll bet on Seattle to be one of the minority of American cities that can thrive in the reset from the Great Disruption.

Headquarters matter, especially the leader companies that locate in center cities with large numbers of well-paid jobs, and those that play outsized roles in philanthropy. It matters where the CEO lives.

These companies see the well-being of their communities as important business assets. The best of them give back because they passionately love their cities — a shockingly un-economic rationale in today’s America, where everything must have a bottom line.

Most American cities have lost most or all of these companies and the remainder are much more leashed to a Wall Street that doesn’t give a fig about the health of Main Street. Seattle, especially for its size, remains the exception. Seattle got a chilling reminder of the stakes with the failure — foolishly allowed by regulators, to my thinking — of Washington Mutual and the loss of thousands of jobs. Another loser was SAM, Washington Mutual’s partner in the skyscraper.

Seattle also remains the exception in the number of civic stewards with the means and will to write checks and knock heads. So while the Nordstrom deal does does make sound business sense — consolidating office space — it also fits into vital role played by major headquarters companies, especially those with deep roots in the community.

Downtown health is especially important in the big reset. Seattle enjoys one of America’s most vibrant downtowns. Dense clusters of smart people are incubators for innovation. But in the future especially the most successful center cities will be those that offer sustainable live-work-play environments. More people will prefer to live close in with plenty of public transportation choices. The old appeal of office “parks” will be offset by higher energy prices, growing congestion, rising environmental costs and the debt overhang that is hitting exurbia especially hard.

There’s no successful metro area without a successful center city.

The news is not without some potential downsides. One is that the office space Nordstrom vacates must be filled in a nasty commercial real-estate market. This is not a case of growing the pie, but rearranging it. The other is that Nordstrom, as a publicly traded company, is always in danger of being acquired or dismembered by Wall Street, albeit its special place among department stores.

So the Nordstrom move shows Seattle can still step up. What Seattle must still prove is that it can continue to reinvent itself, building and growing companies while passing along the rare and precious zeal among its empire builders to also build a great city.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Santa’s packed his sleigh

Let’s hope Goldman Sachs

Hasn’t shorted him

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