Final Analysis: Out of Their Minds


When I moved to Seattle 22 years ago, I remember thinking I had never lived in a city where so many people had moved here not for a job, but for a sense of place. I had relocated from St. Louis, and I love St. Louis. But trust me: No one moves to St. Louis because it is geographically blessed, whereas hordes will move to Seattle precisely for that reason. Even during the 1990-91 recession, I kept encountering people who had moved here for the hiking, the climbing, the sailing. They sang the praises of the scenery, the temperate climate. They figured the career thing would eventually take care of itself. They wanted to live here because the place is so incredibly special.

A lot of people who don’t live here also think Seattle is pretty special. We know this because they pump $16.4 billion a year into the state’s economy and assure the employment of people who make $4.5 billion in wages.

How long that attraction continues will have a lot to do with how well we continue to promote Washington tourism. The state of Washington right now isn’t spending a penny on tourism promotion. A revenue-strapped Legislature shut down the state tourism office last year and eliminated its $1.8 million budget.

A makeshift private organization called the Washington Tourism Alliance is now the de facto promoter of state tourism. People who work in tourism created it, knowing that while Washington will always remain an attractive vacation option, it’s hard to compete with other inviting places that pump tens of millions of dollars a year into promoting their attractions. The thinking is that once we’re out of sight, we’ll quickly be out of mind.

At a public forum on travel and tourism recently, the sponsor of the event—a major bank—declared it had become the first financial institution in Washington state to join the Washington Tourism Alliance.

The announcement did not lead the 11 o’clock news. But it opened my eyes. “The health of the tourism industry does not just affect hotels and restaurants,” said KeyBank executive John Roehm. “The hundreds of attractions, retail and hospitality businesses, and the 160,000 people employed in this sector are our bank customers. They open checking accounts, they pay mortgages and they make investments. It is in our interest to ensure the industry survives and grows.”

That was my “well, duh!” moment. For some reason, we who live in this geographically blessed place don’t seem to think of tourism as an industry, at least not in the same way we think about airplane manufacturing, software development or even online retail. There’s no one going to a factory or an office building to “make” something. We seem to think it just happens. But if we take it for granted, it will go away.

In 1993, during an anti-taxation frenzy, Colorado voters apparently thought the same thing. They cut the state’s travel-promotion budget from $12 million to zero. Colorado’s share of the domestic travel market plunged from 2.7 percent to 1.8 percent. State funding returned about seven years later, but it took 19 years for Colorado to get back to the market share it had enjoyed in 1993.

In Washington state, the Alliance realizes it cannot continue relying on the kindness of strangers. Its ultimate goal is to persuade the Legislature to devise a promotion model that keeps travel and tourism a viable industry in Washington state. But until that happens, you may want to consider ponying up for a membership in the Alliance. After all, this is a special place. But, as Colorado quickly discovered, it’s not that special when an entire industry dries up.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Full disclosure: His wife is employed by KeyBank. 

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

City regulations may be well meaning, but small businesses are feeling put upon.
David Lee founded FareStart in Seattle to train chefs because he believed the homeless would benefit from “the dignity of preparing food as a vocation.” He launched Field Roast, a producer of vegan “meats,” because he considers the mass industrialization of animals as “a blight on our culture.” He has nurtured a caring culture at his SoDo production facility, remodeling the space so production workers have plenty of space and natural light.
So when Seattle passed a paid-sick-leave law mandating a set number of paid days for sick leave, Lee accepted it. But the results have been disappointing.
“For the first time,” he says, “I have employees lying to me. A medical appointment becomes a paid day off.”
The city’s $15 minimum-wage mandate was another challenge.
“It hurts businesses like ours that compete on a national level against companies in places like Arkansas that pay $7 [an hour],” says Lee. But, wanting to do the right thing, this summer Lee boosted the wages of his employees to $15 an hour four years before he was required to do so under the law.
Seattle can be proud that its $15 minimum-wage law has led the way in driving up wages across the country. And because it is being implemented over seven years and at a time when the local economy is strong, there have been relatively few negative impacts (page 20). Similarly, while there may be widespread abuse of sick leave, there is evidence that the ability of workers to take the time off helps prevent the spread of the flu and other harmful viruses.
But each new layer of regulation is an added burden on business. Now the city is adding yet more regulations — one set that will require businesses to set schedules for employees two weeks in advance and yet another that requires landlords to choose tenants in the order applications are submitted. What’s next? 
A requirement that companies hire employees in the order that they applied?
While each regulation may have some logic to it, the cumulative effect is to make it harder for businesses to fulfill their important role as job creators. The rules can be particularly hard on small businesses without the resources to hire staff to deal with the complications regulations create.
Regulations also create bureaucracy. The Seattle Times reported that to enforce a law requiring landlords to select tenants in the order in which they replied, the city would hire two employees at a cost of $200,000 and launch sting operations. Really?
Meanwhile, the city isn’t enforcing basic sanitation laws to prevent the homeless from leaving excrement on city sidewalks. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience came close to shutting down because an illegal encampment just a block away included “tents serving as drug galleries” that made it unsafe for the museum’s employees and visitors. The problem contributed to the shutting down of the nearby House of Hong restaurant and resulted in negative reviews for the museum on websites like Trip Advisor during the important summer tourist season.
It will be interesting to see if the city’s new director of homelessness, appointed in August at an annual salary of $137,500, can address this expanding problem.
“Clearly, what is happening is that government is forcing business to take on the social imperative,” Lee says.
The altruistic entrepreneur accepts that, up to a point. But the city needs to spend more time attending to basic services. And it has to stop pretending it can solve the world’s problems on the backs of small businesses.
Executive Editor