Final Analysis: Crowning Achievement

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Welcome to “the dark months.” This is what Mick McHugh calls the period between the end of one baseball season in late September and the beginning of the next one in early April.

McHugh owns F.X. McRory’s Steak, Chop & Oyster House, which debuted in Pioneer Square in 1977, the same year the Seattle Mariners were born. If you’re a diehard Seattle sports junkie, you’ve probably quaffed or noshed at McRory’s at least once. If you have visited during the dark months, it was probably on a day when the Seattle Seahawks were playing football.

There are only eight Seahawks home games each NFL season, so the dark months—October through March—are a challenge for establishments like McRory’s that rely on the sports-obsessed public for much of their income. Basketball and hockey are played during the dark months, which is why McHugh probably thinks Chris Hansen is a heavenly combination of messiah, mensch and Merlin.

Hansen is the rich guy from San Francisco who wants to put a basketball/hockey arena near the existing football and baseball stadiums in Seattle. He has spent more than $50 million buying up property nearby. In a recent blog post, McHugh described Hansen’s arena as having “the potential to … make a difference in the lives of not only the business owners in the area … but the staff we will be able to keep on during those quiet times and the additional people we will have to hire.”

In sporting circles, Hansen has already had his halo fitting. His canonization is likely on the fast track because anyone who can bring professional basketball back to Seattle—and maybe a hockey team, too—while footing much of the bill for a new arena is destined to be seated at the right hand of Oprah come Judgment Day.

But on the day in September that Seattle was celebrating the City Council’s tentative agreement over the financing of Hansen Arena, I was moderating a panel discussion about the outlook for the Washington state economy in 2013. Susan Sigl, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, mentioned that our economic future is inexorably linked to our ability to close the high-tech education gap—the yawning chasm between the huge number of available tech jobs in Washington and the small number of graduates qualified to fill them.

It’s an oft-heard refrain, but if we don’t improve education in the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it doesn’t really matter if we get a shiny new version of the Seattle Sonics to play in a shiny new arena. Without a successful economy firing on all cylinders, adding one or two more teams to the professional sports landscape is like putting gas in a car whose fuel tank has a hole in it.

And so as I moderated the discussion, I began to wonder: Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody like Chris Hansen, a zillionaire who grew up in Seattle loving the Sonics and who wants to give back to the community he loves, were willing to pony up about $300 million to kick-start a first-class effort to close the tech education gap?

Look, I love sports. But sports is entertainment. It can boost civic identity to a point, but it’s not as if a city lives or dies according to the number of millionaire athletes it’s willing to coddle. Trust me. The city of Seattle and the state of Washington will survive without a pro basketball team. But without enough highly qualified tech graduates to stoke our economic engine, Mick McHugh’s dark months could become an all-year proposition.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

Virgin on Business: Celebrating Boeing and the Interstate

If nothing else, significant anniversaries give us reason to pause and ponder.
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Round-number-anniversary stories are an overused tool in the journalism workshop, maybe because they’re still helpful in pausing to assess where we are, how we got here and where we’re going.

In the case of two such round-number anniversaries being marked this year, those questions about where we’ve been and where we’re going have literal application because they pertain to two hugely significant developments in transportation, both important to this region, although only one is closely identified with it.

This year, Boeing celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding and the interstate highway system marks 60 years since its official launch.

It is possible to overstate the significance to Seattle of Bill Boeing’s venture into aviation. It’s not true that without Boeing there wouldn’t be a Seattle, at least one that anyone would have heard of. Seattle was already someplace by 1916, thanks to the port and the railroads — the earlier contributions of two other modes of transport to Seattle’s creation — and events like the Klondike gold rush. Boeing didn’t emerge as the world’s preeminent commercial-aerospace company until well into its middle age.

But would the Seattle region have grown to the size it is and the importance it claims without being one of the world’s centers of aerospace design and production? Would it have developed the tech industries it thrives upon today without the foundation Boeing laid? Would it be a home to a thick portfolio of nationally significant companies? That’s highly debatable and quite doubtful.

As for where we’re going, wherever it is, we’ll likely get there by plane for a long time hence. For all the talk of hyperloops and other technologies, the airplane is still a remarkably efficient, productive and safe method of getting people and stuff from one place to another. There may be revolutions in design, materials and propulsion to rival the transition from propeller to jet, but short of teleportation, the airplane’s place in transportation is secure.

Much less secure are Boeing’s and Seattle’s places in that future. A lot of airplane-building rivals have come and gone in 100 years, and more are coming. It would be nice for both if Boeing and Seattle were still relevant to the discussion of the aerospace industry when the 200th anniversary of Boeing’s founding occurs. 

Meanwhile, the interstate highway system gets little love and a lot of abuse these days, credited with urban demolition, suburban sprawl and desecration of the countryside, not to mention the intangible crime of encouraging Americans to race to their destinations while ignoring the joys and sights of the journey.

Some of the blame is earned; much of it is silly. For people and things, the destination usually matters more than the journey. The interstates rendered the destination possible by making the journey faster and safer, even more enjoyable. And lamentations about not seeing or appreciating the country when viewed from the interstate are sometimes wrong. Take the drive on I-82 between Ellensburg and Yakima, or on I-90 just west of Snoqualmie summit, and try not to be impressed by either the scenery or the engineering feats.

Your cargo, however, is not on a sightseeing trip. It has places to be and work to do, which underscores the massive contribution the interstate system has made as an incredibly powerful economic engine. The modern American supply chain is a wondrous thing; it doesn’t happen without a network of limited-access divided highways, which, by the way, took a lot of traffic off city streets and rural roads, improving life for many.

Unloved as Interstates 5, 90 and 405 are for their congestion, noise, unsightliness, etc., and as expensive as it’s going to be to expand, rebuild and maintain them, give them credit for making urban life possible.  

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