Greater Seattle Partners CEO Brian McGowan Is Sold on Seattle

With Greater Seattle Partners, Brian McGowan promotes a region, not just a city
SOLD ON SEATTLE. Brian McGowan moved to the Puget Sound region from Atlanta. He doesn’t plan to leave.

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

Brian McGowan has ambitious plans for Greater Seattle Partners, a new public/private organization that seeks to unite disparate economic development groups to better advance growth and competitiveness in the Puget Sound region. McGowan, the group’s first CEO, started work last September and quickly embarked on a “listening tour” with business and political leaders to improve his understanding of issues facing the regional economy. He has also led a trade delegation to Asia. McGowan most recently served as CEO of Atlanta Beltline, an ambitious sustainable redevelopment project in that city, and was an official in the Obama administration. He says he and his family plan to stay in Seattle for the long term: 

When the headhunter called me about this job and told me it’s in Seattle, the decision was pretty much made at that point. I started doing the process of elimination of which West Coast cities where I would like to live. It kind of came down to one: Seattle.

My biggest surprise is just how complicated this economy is. It’s not a one-trick pony here. We have everything here from retail to ports to agriculture to spaceships and airplanes. We have skills and quality of workforce probably higher than any place in the United States. We make things here. How do you begin to tell this very robust story? That’s going to be our challenge.

People have told me there’s an ethos here that people don’t brag. People are kind of understated. Whether you’re a millionaire, a movie star, a rock star, people don’t brag. They don’t show off. Regarding the economy and the work we’re doing, we have to change that a little bit.

I didn’t know Nordstrom was a Seattle company. I felt like I should have known that. And I’m an avid Nordstrom shopper. The University of Washington is the No. 10-ranked university in the world. I didn’t know that. I don’t think people realize that Boeing has more employees here than anywhere in the world.

We are ultimately going to measure our success by the number of jobs and the type of investment we’re able to bring throughout the region. What we want to do is make sure we’re creating jobs for all people, not just high-tech jobs or jobs that pay $100,000 a year or more. We need to create $15- or $30-an-hour jobs. And we need to make sure these jobs are created where people live.

What you don’t want is our economy to start shrinking. To get back what you lost at that point is trying to run up a down escalator. Just look no farther than Detroit.

This is a competition for investment. There are cities and regions all over the world competing for the kind of growth we’ve had. They are looking to steal our companies.

The Amazon HQ2 exercise shows the ridiculous extremes places are willing to go to land, poach or steal a company from another place. You want your place to be the clear choice for a company. Instead of providing incentives, use the money to strengthen your shortfalls.

A lot of companies move to where young, talented people want to be. We have to make sure we’re telling that story that this region is cool and interesting and has a diverse economy. Where, if your industry changes, there are lots of jobs where your skills would be transferable.

I don’t think we should want to be San Francisco. We should want to be Seattle.

I would think San Francisco, Denver and Los Angeles are our biggest competitors. But I think our real wins will come internationally. You have companies based in other countries that want to establish a foothold in the United States. We want to make sure that we’re painting a compelling picture so those companies want to be here and not someplace else.

We’re ideally situated to be a landing spot for Asian companies looking to come to the United States. Asia is a very important trading partner with our position on the Pacific Rim.

We should be cooperating with regard to marketing the region and telling our story. Once a company says it wants to be in the region, jurisdictions and counties should compete for it. Greater Seattle Partners is agnostic about where it goes.

Pierce County, Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue and the city of Seattle have to be really good at economic development. At the end of the day, it’s going to be their job to land the investment, land the company. Our job is going to be to get the interest, to get them to look at us.

The other thing we need to do as a region is not bash each other to compete externally. It’s not abnormal, but we have to understand that, whatever your opinions are of Seattle, it’s the word “Seattle” that matters the most. That’s the way the world sees the whole region.

Homelessness is definitely a business issue. Now, every city has homelessness. Seattle is not different. As housing prices and rents go up, it has a direct correlation to causing homelessness. I think if government works with the private sector, we can solve that problem. This is a compassionate place. We don’t want people to think it’s not.

I can’t tell you how many car accidents I’ve almost been in. I’m driving, and I look at Mount Rainier or the Cascades, and it’s just so spectacularly beautiful here.

Whenever I wear a tie, people ask me why I’m wearing a tie.

I mountain bike. That’s my thing.

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