Greater Seattle Partners CEO Predicts the Region Will Be Among the First to Recover from the COVID-19 Crisis

Brian McGowan says greater Seattle’s unified public-private efforts to address the coronavirus-fueled downturn will help speed the recovery
Updated: Thu, 03/26/2020 - 18:37
Brian McGowan, president and CEO of Greater Seattle Partners.

The greater Seattle area, which was the first region hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, could well end up being the tip of the spear in the future economic recovery, with its diverse economy ― the fastest-growing in the nation prior to the COVID-19 crisis ― leading the charge forward.

That’s the assessment of Brian McGowan, president and chief executive officer of Greater Seattle Partners, a regional public/private economic development organization serving the Puget Sound region. McGowan has broad experience leading economic-response efforts in the wake of a national crisis ― including in his prior role overseeing an economic solutions group set up in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon-BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill while serving as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Obama administration.

“We're very diverse region of about 4 million people, with major headquarters located here,” McGowan said. “I think it’s that diversity that is going to pull us out of this. I do believe that our region, as we go into economic recovery, will be one of the first to come out of this situation.”

McGowan made his comments as part of an online panel discussion held Thursday, March 26, that focused on the impact of COVID-19 on economic development. The panel, hosted by Development Counsellors International and the International Economic Development Council, also included economic development experts from Toronto and Columbus, Ohio.

“My sister organization, called Challenge Seattle, which is run by our former governor, [Christine] Gregoire, has been holding a call bringing together all the major employers and county and state health officials, over 200 people sharing information and working together,” McGowan said. “So, this region acted boldly, early and without mandates. Obviously, since then things have gotten worse nationally, but we are getting better at this on a daily basis and, if the [COVID-19] curve flattens here first, which I think it will, it will be because of this public-private cooperation.”

Still, McGowan says the numbers to date are not pretty, with almost a million jobs in the region at risk immediately or over the long-term. He adds that Washington, the “most trade-driven state in the United States,” was already seeing negative impacts from the ongoing trade wars, “and this [COVID-19 crisis] will only exacerbate job losses” in that sector.

“Our three ports are experiencing significant losses as is our tourism industry,” he said. “Major conventions are canceling. This time last year our hotels were at 76% occupancy, and this week they are at 15% occupancy. We also project retail sales are down between 20% to 50%.”

McGowan stresses, however, that there are hopeful signs for the Puget Sound region’s economy as well, despite the dour business numbers. He said Amazon is hiring 100,000 people nationally, and the region’s “cloud computing, gaming and computer-services industries are up.”

Among the other positive actions undertaken in greater Seattle to date, according to McGowan:

* We have coordinated actions regarding social distancing between government entities and business organizations to make sure we were all singing off the same song sheet.

* We launched the public-service announcement campaign to reinforce social distancing, and companies are funding this and donating airtime.

* We've engaged the business community to get the word out about blood-supply shortages.

* We're leveraging our company's supply chains to secure personal protective equipment and leveraging local manufacturing companies to start producing personal protective equipment. Costco, Microsoft and Nordstrom are assisting in that kind of work.

* We’re also leveraging our supply chains to ensure food banks and other emergency feeding operations have access to food supply.

* Amazon and Microsoft have created funds to support the small businesses and restaurants around their headquarters, which are shuttered right now.

* Our foundations have set up funds that are focusing on providing grants to nonprofits that provide services to vulnerable populations.

* The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington are innovating to develop test kits and treatments and supporting other efforts around the region. Much of that work will help the entire world and not just this region.

Despite all the cooperation and efforts to date in Seattle area, McGowan shot down recent talk at the national level of a return to business as normal by as soon as this coming Easter, April 12.

“I don't see anybody here preparing for an Easter opening,” he said. “I don't think the numbers are supporting that nationally. I think this notion that we’re going to be up and open and celebrating by Easter is just a false hope.”

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