You know the feeling, like that day in March of 2001 when Boeing announced it would move its world headquarters out of Seattle to another city. When it finally left for Chicago later that year, it was a relatively small move, not thousands but a few hundred people.
How could a company founded on the shore of Lake Union in 1916 transfer its flag to another city? At the minimum, it was a blow to the city’s ego.
In September of 2017, it was Amazon. Another homegrown giant that had exploded into the retail disrupter as we know it announced yet something completely different. It wouldn't move its headquarters out of Seattle but build a second headquarters someplace else.
As Amazon announced Tuesday it wasn't one someplace, but two. A second headquarters becoming essentially two half headquarters in Queens, New York and in Virginia outside of Washington, D.C.
In the wake of both, there were recriminations Seattle and the state had become unfriendly toward business, and we would all face ruin if it continued. Call it Northwest Corporate Relocation Anxiety.
“Is that a real thing?” KING 5’s Glenn Farley asked Chris Mefford, president & CEO of Community Attributes, Inc (CAI) in Seattle.
CAI is in the business of helping cities find companies, and companies find cities.
“I think that’s a good way to frame it,” said Mefford. “The first thing is our identity and our image; we want the world to think of us as the place with the global headquarters as a great place to be.”
Microsoft, Starbucks, Nordstrom, REI, and Costco are the other big corporate giants still based in Seattle.
If you ask most people who know anything about Boeing, they think it’s still based here, and its huge airliner business still is, though the company did break ground a second assembly line for its 787 Dreamliner in South Carolina in 2009.
The movement of a corporate headquarters is always a blow, even though the reasons for it are often highly complex. Amazon’s Seattle headquarters continues to grow with new buildings under construction that are already leased out.
One way to look at the two HQ2s is more a case of prestige dilution.
Its also happened within the state and in Seattle’s favor. Russell Investments moved from its long-standing headquarters in Tacoma to Seattle. Weyerhaeuser moved from its campus in Federal Way to Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
“This region’s starting a new organization called the Greater Seattle Partners,” said Mefford, who believes Seattle and the region needs to think in terms of being a global city, rather than a second-tier city.
On the one hand, there is the anxiety, on the other hand, the reality that the urban area has been pretty much growing nonstop for decades.
“We’ve assumed economic growth is going to happen. We’re the land of growth management. We haven’t been the land of economic development,” said Mefford, who points to increasing competition.
One of those cities regarded as an Amazon HQ2 finalist was former rust belt steel city Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now cleaned up and considered a tech hub for the east. Mefford cites larger Cleveland, Ohio as another city that’s turned it around. And they’re not alone as growing competitors.
“The playing field has rather evened out,” said Mefford. “In places like Cleveland, and Columbus, and Pittsburgh, and Kansas City, all the Midwestern cities that are now saying we now need to invest in our cities to be great places to live. And with all the technological changes I think they will be more competitive with Seattle than they ever have been.”