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July 19, 2013 at 7:16 AM

Detroit was Seattle 60 years ago

Seattle cannot afford to get complacent about its economic success. Unemployment is dropping to pre-Great Recession rates. It would be easy to gawk at the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy, as detailed in an Associated Press news story. It’s the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. But it’s a cautionary tale of squandered success, and one that political candidates and elected officials should reflect on.’s cloud services and 787s are to Seattle today what the Fords and Cadillacs were to Detroit in the 1950s. Like South Lake Union, Detroit boomed along with the auto industry. Back then, Detroit was Motor City and Seattle was Jet City.

Putting aside the differences in making planes and automobiles, the difference was that Seattle was able to reinvent itself by attracting new businesses like Microsoft, which drove growth through the 1990s, bolstered by Starbucks and Costco. Now is driving a boom. What companies will drive the next round of economic growth? Is government doing enough to foster its incubation?

Check out this interactive graphic on the bankruptcy from the Associated Press.

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Jon Talton wrote in a Sound Economy blog post from the news side that the real competition is not Seattle vs. Bellevue, but a competition against Shanghai and Amsterdam for talent. And, I would argue, to grow that talent at home. The state Legislature’s investments to keep higher education tuition stable was a good start. Congress helped by reversing a doubling of student-loan interest rates.

But even if we grow talent here, is Seattle and King County doing what it should to retain the companies and those people? Is it building the public transit network and investing in roads for freight, cars, bikes and pedestrians? Software engineers can go anywhere in the country. They want cities that are cool, hip and easy to live in. I think we’ve got the hipster thing down. Easy to live in is another question. Check out the Mercer Mess, which has created gridlock for Queen Anne, Magnolia and Fremont, and won’t actually improve traffic capacity when it’s done.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to create the next Silicon Valley there. (Check out this Marketplace report.) The city just partnered with a company to start a bike-share program called Divvy. (Check out this Grist report.)

And lastly, is the government helping the industries we have stay competitive? The competition for the Port of Seattle should not be the Port of Tacoma. It’s Savannah’s port as the Panama Canal gets widened. It’s Prince Rupert in B.C.

Voters now have the opportunity to elect the city and county leadership to not just keep the economy roaring back, but to make sure the next boom gets seeded now.

Our editorial board considered this issue as we interviewed candidates for mayor, city councils, county councils and the port. Here are all of our recommendations to voters for the Aug. 6, 2013 primary election. Ballots were mailed out this week and should be arriving shortly.

Update 12:16 p.m.

For a longer, more encompassing piece comparing Detroit and Seattle, check out our former editorial page editor Jim Vesely’s 2006 column. It includes some interesting observations from former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer about how the key to a regional city’s survival is getting people to live downtown. Here is an excerpt:

Detroit had the corporate manufacturing headquarters that cities like Chicago and New York, both financial and trading centers, did not. Detroit and its motor suburbs, the Grosse Pointes and Dearborn, were home to clusters of engineers and their young families — much like Bellevue and Renton. In the post-war years, the city was putting its stamp on the world. No one could foresee a decline that would start sometime in the early 1970s and stretch for another 30 years.


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