Seattle’s Future: Forward Thrust or Bust?

Published in Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The danger in next month’s capital improvements election–with the Seattle Commons, neighborhood ball parks and a big outdoor ballpark for the Mariners on the ballot–is not that voters of Seattle and King County will lack the facts upon which to make a sound judgment. There will be plenty of healthy debate. The real danger, especially for young voters and newcomers, is that the choices may take place in an historical vacuum.

The best argument for the bond issues is that, unlike so many federal, state and even government promises, voters in this case can be fairly sure of what they are getting for their money. They will be able to see the results. But if they are skeptical, they might want to review what happened with some other great decisions in Seattle history, including most recently, “Forward Thrust.”

Even people who experienced it may have forgotten what that former citizens’ crusade did to make Seattle a better place to live. Indeed, our area today is at a crucial point not unlike that of 27 years ago. The economic boom back then had left many people worried, for the first time, that the area’s “livability” was threatened. Yet, voters may have been more optimistic then, if only because family income was growing faster than it is now.

In the short term, that optimism was somewhat unwarranted. Within a couple of years after the first and determinative Forward Thrust election of 1968, Seattle suffered the famous “Boeing recession.” In the subsequent, less hopeful atmosphere of 1970, the remaining Forward Thrust proposals that were put on that year’s ballot were defeated.

But then a wonderful thing happened–several wonderful things, really. The Forward Thrust projects that King County residents had approved in the palmy days of 1968 began development in the early 70’s at just the right time to help revive the economy. A spectacular series of civic improvements ensued, including new parks, recreation and professional sports facilities, sanitation, fire stations, a youth service center, and community centers. It was largely due to the major Forward Thrust projects, and the many smaller projects inspired by them, that Seattle started winning “Most Livable City” awards over the following decade. A successful 1972 vote for a metropolitican bus system (the often-forgotten third ballot vote of the Forward Thrust series), and the state legislature’s adoption of Forward Thrust measures to modernize SeaTac Airport and our seaport added to the momentum.

I was newly on the City Council then and delighted with the opportunities Forward Thrust offered Seattle. Many of them were serendipitous and unanticipated. For example, historic preservation had not been considered when the Forward Thrust parks proposal was planned, but by 1972 we were able to use historic preservation techniques to find new uses for old Seattle landmarks and to save money on building some of the “new” facilities Forward Thrust had promised.

As for the parks themselves, Forward Thrust allowed Seattle area governments to pick up properties for what we can now see were bargain prices. For example, the land for Mercer Island’s Luther Burbank Park, presently valued at $70 million, was acquired for all of $l.5 million.

Though capital funds were relatively plentiful in the ’70’s, thanks to Forward Thrust, maintenance funds were not. But Forward Thrust inspired City Hall to find creative ways to close much of the gap. One way was to combine projects in order to reduce overhead expenses. Merging the new aquarium with the Waterfront Park is an example.

We also found we could get some of the new parks actually to generate revenue to offset their maintenance costs, as was the case again at Waterfront Park. Re-using the existing old piers as part of the park design was entirely in keeping with the park’s theme, and it also permitted us to expand visitor interest with shops and restaurants. And, ever since, these private concessions have provided the city with rent and sales tax revenues.

Due to the inspiration of the father of the Forward Thrust movement, Jim Ellis, the city and county also learned how to leverage bond moneys to attract public grants, private investments and gifts. These ranged from highway funds and a new private building that helped make Freeway Park possible to private flower garden donations for the park’s operations. Thus, the citizens of Seattle and King County actually got far more than they voted for. How often does that happen with government?

In fact, the total bond moneys of $330 million were nearly doubled by federal and state public grants, along with private investments and gifts ($240 million), plus interest on the bonds ($55 million). Throw in the increased property values of recent decades, and Forward Thrust turns out to have been the best bargain for Seattleites since we built the City Light hydroelectric dams at the turn of the century.

People over 40 often ask what happened to the kind of enlightened and inventive civic leadership that gave us Forward Thrust. Part of the answer is that while contemporary Americans demand leadership, we denigrate leaders. We are particularly cynical about motives now, even with citizen volunteers. And then there is the problem of time. Back in the ’60’s, Jim Ellis expected to spend less than two years on Forward Thrust and wound up devoting seven. Today’s extensive approval processes and other hurdles make public projects exhausting for citizen leaders.

But the rest of the answer to the leadership question is more heartening. The truth is that both the Seattle Commons idea and the proposal to build a new outdoor stadium initially arose from outside of government and have elicited almost exactly the same quality of citizen spirit that gave us Forward Thrust-or, earlier, the Century 21 World’s Fair that left us the Seattle Center.

Over several years more than 2500 citizens from all walks of life have donated personal time, financial contributions and talent to the Commons idea. At first, there was not even any great interest from the organized business community or from government.

There is no hidden agenda. The uncommon Commons vision is persuasive because it has just the right mix of boldness and prudence, like Forward Thrust. The vision is to create 18,000 good new jobs, anchor a good share of the city’s new, multi-income housing growth at the south end of Lake Union, with a landmark central park that everyone can use, and in the process help reduce urban sprawl and traffic congestion. It will be a model of a more sensible urban envirornment.

As with Forward Thrust, the citizens who have thrown themselves into the Commons effort have figured out how to blend many aims to produce a package with wide appeal. The neighborhood ballparks are needed, though they are not urgent. But the plan to use the Commons project as a means to solve the near-legendary Mercer Street traffic mess is an excellent case of sound multi-purpose planning.

The Commons, if adopted, probably will excel Forward Thrust in attracting private investments and and already has done so with philanthropic gifts and loans. The Commons group also has figured out how to attract money from outside the area. As an immediate consequence of approval of the Commons’ bonds, $18 million of bond funds will be used to secure matching state and federal highway grants to widen the Mercer corridor and put it underground.

When you think of it, the Forward Thrust spirit is also alive in the unfairly-maligned plan to build a Mariners ballpark. It, too, will be multi-purpose, not just the place for a baseball fan to enjoy a soft summer night, but a place for any of us, and our children, to enjoy a wide range of civic events and celebrations. And thanks to an ingenious retractable roof, it will work regardless of the weather.

The ballpark proposal bespeaks the all too-unusual civic dedication of the wealthy individuals who risked their own money–starting with the Japanese owner of Nintendo who effectively gifted us with $50 million–to save the local professional baseball team. That is what we now have on the line.

You don’t put your money into a baseball team in Seattle to get rich (or richer) these days, whatever you may tell your spouse. And you don’t go to endless Commons meetings to advance your career. Maybe you step forward because you are nostalgic for your youth, or for the dreams you had of the city you’d like to see, or maybe you are that old fashioned type of person who believes in the concept of civic virtue.

Whatever its source, we can’t buy that kind of civic spirit at any price. Like the citizens of the ancient Roman republic–or Seattle at the high points of its history–we can only try to call it forth.

This town has lots of other needs and opportunities beyond those on the current ballot. But that is not a reason for discouragement. We also have better prospects than we have ever enjoyed. Surely we would like to see more of the newly wealthy Seattleites step up to the challenge of philanthropy and to endow our next genereation with new civic advantages–in schools, city beautification, housing, camps, museums, public gardens, transportation amenities, music, medical care, and job opportunities. But, how do we entice our new millionaires to play this role unless we honor those who do?

This town, as part of its heritage, also probably has more than its fair share of talented potential citizen leaders, regardless of financial resources, good people of a new generation whose imagination, know-how and drive we would like to enlist for our community’s benefit. They will do the volunteer chores others shirk. But what do we have to entice those individuals–other than the respect we pay them by taking their efforts seriously?

Is ours going to be the era of Forward Bust? Or are we headed for another Forward Thrust, with all the good it can bring us? The September ballot will not finally answer that question. But it can become an important sign that civic confidence–and the calling forth of public service–is once again ignited. It can light our way.

If you doubt what such measures can do for a city, drive around. Many of the best features of contemporary Seattle sprang from the public spirited efforts of earlier citizens, including the Progressive Era generation at the turn of the century who built our first comprehensive boulevard and parks systems, the ship canals and locks, our exemplary water reservoirs and power dams and the Denny Regrade. Those folks are all gone.

But the Forward Thrust generation, most of them, are still here. From our clean water to a vibrant cultural life, you also can see their works. The point is that Seattle did not become the envy of the nation by accident. Seattle citizens–with remarkable frequency–have made wise choices at the right time.

Just look around you.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.