Virgin on Business: The City of Amazon


For the final column of 2014, tradition demands that we select a person, place or thing for which the coming year will prove to be critical and pivotal for said person, place or thing, and for the regional economy.

Truth be told: Tradition barely hints that we go through such an exercise, this being just the fourth year we’ve attempted it. And after seeing what we’ve come up with this time, tradition, if it’s still paying attention at all, might suggest not to bother when 2016 comes calling.

Let’s review: In the first two years of this “tradition,” I nominated Boeing and Microsoft — obvious and safe choices, although at the time they were in the midst of potentially transformative periods with significant implications for this region.

Last year, I shifted focus slightly by nominating not a company but a governmental agency: the state Department of Transportation.

In the case of Boeing and Microsoft, both had years that were certainly news filled and newsworthy; some of those news events might even be viewed as positive for the Northwest, while the long-term ramifications of others, such as Microsoft’s naming a new CEO with a new strategic direction, are still playing out.

The Department of Transportation needed to have a good year in 2014 because its success with big-ticket projects would determine whether legislators and voters would let the state take on more. “Good year” is probably not the term one would use to describe the DOT’s 2014. The only chapter that wasn’t written in the sad saga of Bertha was that the tunnel-boring machine had suddenly roared back to life on its own and when last seen was furiously digging its way toward Duvall. But that might come. What didn’t come was a transportation package.

So what to do about 2015? The easy, even lazy, route would be to nominate Amazon. It’s always stirring something up.

It’s not my official nominee, but it does figure in the reasons I’m qualifying and hedging my nomination for the entity that, for the region’s benefit, needs to have a good 2015. That nominee: Seattle city government, specifically, the mayor and City Council.

Ed Murray’s first year in office was, to put it bluntly, a mess. His own missteps — waffling on discipline for a police department official, the $98,000 make-work job for Peter Steinbrueck, the weekly proposals to create new thickets of bureaucracy — plus the misadventures of City Light CEO Jorge Carrasco, the $15 minimum-wage non-debate raise questions as to whether he is any more up to the task of taking on big-city challenges than his predecessor.

Nor did the City Council turn in a stellar performance, what with making a hash of issues like the minimum wage (that again) and taxis-vs.-Uber et al, and public posturing episodes like Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In ordinary towns, the voters, taxpayers, citizens, business owners and workers might root for a more accomplished government, one that figures in fewer punch lines, if only for the sake of economic conditions and their own wallets. The politicians might prefer that as well, if only for the sake of their self-preservation.

Here’s why it might not matter if they don’t achieve that. Such is the strength of Seattle’s economy at the moment that it doesn’t matter much what city government does (and make no mistake, it’s in spite of, not because of). The sort of politicians Seattle elects these days — the electorate that put safe if dull choices like Norm Rice into the mayor’s office is not the electorate that voted for the likes of Mike McGinn and Ed Murray — may not care much for Amazon and others of its tech-sector ilk, or the rest of the business sector, but they love the sort of revenue those companies generate to finance city government’s growth and forays into new ventures such as education. 

So, in a roundabout way, we are nominating Amazon after all. For the mayor, council and city government to have a good year, Amazon needs to have a good year. As long as the company keeps hiring and adding office space, as long as companies like Weyerhaeuser keep moving to town, as long as the money keeps flowing, the public won’t care much what Seattle politicians are up to.

When the money stops, that’s when the fun begins. 

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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