Watch Out Seattle: Other Cities Seek to Drive Their Growth by Poaching Our Companies

Other cities are actively working to lure Seattle companies

This article appears in print in the February 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Calgary Economic Development officials are serious about luring companies away from Seattle.

For 10 days, they plastered the words “It’s greener on the other side” across three walls on a vacant building in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. The 18-foot-by-15-foot wall installation in the heart of Amazon territory was a blatant, unapologetic attempt to poach Seattle tech companies.

Calgary isn’t the only city looking to steal Seattle’s talent. Phoenix officials made a very public recruiting play last spring after Seattle’s City Council passed the ill-advised head tax, which it later rescinded.

When he was an economic development official in Atlanta, Brian McGowan — now CEO of Greater Seattle Partners — said he had visited Seattle several times “trying to get companies to move” to Georgia.

While that’s not unusual in economic development circles, it’s a stark reminder that other cities are ferociously competing for the kind of economic growth Seattle has enjoyed. Once a region falters — think Detroit — it’s a long road back.

“I can guarantee today there’s probably an economic developer from somewhere in the United States here talking to our businesses,” McGowan says. “They’re here. They want to steal our companies.”

In December, those economic developers were from Calgary, a city of 1.3 million in the Canadian province of Alberta, about a two-hour flight from Seattle. Their sales pitch struck right at the core of Seattle’s ongoing struggles by emphasizing shorter commutes, vastly more affordable housing and office space, lower tax rates and a pro-business climate “with an abundance of opportunities.”

Calgary’s aggressive pitch demonstrates just how creative a region can get in trying to develop business. In late 2017, the city installed another giant billboard in South Lake Union as part of its ultimately unsuccessful pitch to land Amazon’s second headquarters. It read: “Hey, Amazon. Not saying we’d fight a bear for you … but we totally would.”

Don’t scoff. Calgary’s modestly funded, $1.2 million campaign, which is also targeting companies in San Francisco, Vancouver, B.C., Toronto and London, has notched a few wins, including persuading San Francisco-based technology companies atVenu and RocketSpace to open or expand satellite offices in Calgary.

Right now, Seattle is like a gambler on a hot streak who’s still holding all the cards. The city gained more than 17,000 residents in 2017, according to the U.S. Census, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. It’s well-known that about three dozen Fortune 500 companies have opened satellite offices here in the past decade, mostly to take advantage of a deep talent pool created by Amazon’s rapid growth. At 3.5 percent, King County’s unemployment rate is the lowest of the state’s 39 counties.

Complacency, though, is a killer. Calgary’s aggressive pitch should serve as a wake-up call that Seattle must spread its economic growth around the region and do whatever it takes to tackle significant issues such as homelessness, K-12 education funding, affordability and transportation.

As we’ve seen, others want what Seattle has. And they’re willing to pull out all the stops to get it.

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