Hello, World

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Bill VirginWords have amazing power to conjure in the mind people, places, objects or concepts that we’ve never seen or had any experience with, and may not even exist.

Sometimes, that power can be demonstrated with just one word: Sasquatch. Sometimes, it takes two: Seattle Republican. Or three: Mariners power hitter.

On occasion, it takes more a complex idea: Seattle as a world-class city.

In the not so distant past, Seattle thought the concept of this drizzly burg as a world-class city was not only achievable but also achieved. Between its strategic location on the Pacific Rim (where all the action would be in the 21st century); its roster of agenda-setting, globally significant companies; its hosting of events such as APEC and its high-profile influence on cultural trends, Seattle figured it had cemented its listing among cities to which attention had to be paid to understand where the world was spinning next.

Seattle fell from its lofty perch through a series of unfortunate occurrences—the Boeing headquarters move, the WTO debacle and the rise of competitors to eclipse Microsoft chief among them. That demotion was fine by a lot of Seattleites, who regarded aspirations to world-class-city status as unbecoming social climbing by an insecure elite, or as an attempt to foist more expensive boondoggles on the taxpaying public, either way making a mess of a perfectly nice city.

The skeptics had more than a few valid points about the hazards and pitfalls of “world-class” status, but there was a point, too, not emphasized nearly enough, behind the quest to be noticed on a worldwide stage. Cities that can claim global importance in some commercial, political or artistic endeavor tend to draw in more economic activity, and tend to have more say over their destinies. (Not that such status is secure or permanent: Detroit was a world-class city in the automobile industry, for all the good that past glory’s doing now).

Without world-class status in something, Seattle becomes just another midsize western-American city situated between mountains and a large body of undrinkable water. In other words: Salt Lake City.

And that comparison might be unfair to Salt Lake, which is the world headquarters of a major religious organization (Seattle’s worship of hipsterism and the green life do not count) and which was host to a global event (the Olympics, which Seattle decided it was not up to) without having it become synonymous with rioting.

So, as we prepare for the new year, we might consider whether Seattle still wants to be considered a world-class city, and if so, in what niches or sectors it might achieve that status.

Aerospace? Not any more. High tech? Not us. International trade? Nope. Green tech? Nothing to distinguish us from every other city on Earth. Culture and coffee? Sorry, yesterday’s news. Retailing innovation? Actually, Seattle does have a sizable core of important and innovative companies in retailing, as pointed out in this space some months back, although that sector never seems to excite people as a category to develop.

Global health and medical technology? Now we’re on to something! True, Seattle is hardly the only city with a major teaching and research hospital. Yes, the biotech sector never grew to a prominence its boosters hoped, and promising local companies keep getting bought by out-of-towners. OK, we have a nice concentration of medical device companies but none of a size to dominate. And we have a smattering of nonprofits and foundations, but …

But one of those happens to be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is already as major a player in global health issues as any of the more established governmental and private organizations.

More important, for all the objections listed above, Seattle has a sizable existing base of companies, hospitals and health care organizations, research organizations and philanthropic ventures.

That’s a good start. To build on that base, Seattle and the region will have to not only nurture the homegrown outfits but also get elbows-deep in the grubby work it has often disdained—recruiting (or stealing, to be less polite about it) companies, organizations, entrepreneurs and researchers from other cities. Whatever the modern equivalent of smokestack chasing is, that’s what the region has to do.

Provided, of course, that it wants to be known for something other than flung fish at the local tourist attraction—there’s only so much growth potential in that.

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