Final Analysis: Out of Their Minds

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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. 

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.