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Is Fortune’s Blessing Justified? Well, Yes and No We’re Even Better Than They Think

Fortune smiled on Seattle, but did we really deserve it? Yes – and more.
Granted, it was difficult before the Fortune article to persuade many Seattlites that their metropolitan region really warrants world attention. Even if there is a latte stand on every corner and about 70 Thai restaurants, this place doesn’t yet have the international feel of a London or Hong Kong. Besides, we don’t want to be those other places.

But, take a wider view of the metropolis that stretches from Tacoma to Everett – and then take a similar look at other cities in America – you’ll see that our new-found global standing is justified.

Indeed, some of the numbers are better than Fortune – or nearly anyone else – realizes.

For the past few years the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau has been compiling export trade statistics on a “state of origin” basis. We now can tell with greater accuracy which states are generating the most exports. And, since metropolitan Seattle accounts for a great bulk of state exports, we can assume that if urban area trade figures were available, we would perform even better in those. We know that the Seattle and Tacoma ports, together, are now the second largest in the United States, after Los Angeles/Long Beach.

The previously unreported 1991 state trade figures paint a startling picture. For at least a decade Washington had ranked first in terms of per-capita trade. Now, with the new data reflecting a 129 percent growth in state-of-origin exports from 1987-91, it seems that Washington far eclipses other states in that regard.

Washington – with 4.9 million people, ranking 18th in population size – ranks fourth in total dollar volume of exports. We outpaced all the bigger states except California (population 30 million), Texas (17 million) and New York (18 million). And, with $29.9 billion in exports in 1991, we are crowding the No. 3 state, New York, with $30.1 billion.

The Census figures do not account for certain classes of trade that would make the Washington figures look even better, such as software sales, where our area ranks tops. On the other hand, neither are financial service nor entertainment products included, and in those categories New York and California excel. It is also true that without Boeing our export expansion would have been much less impressive.

But, however you measure it, the truth is this: Metropolitan Seattle is in the greatest period of global trade expansion in its 140-year history – comparable only to the Klondike Gold Rush period and World War II – and it also is the greatest expansion of any contemporary American urban region. You have to look abroad – to Singapore, Guangzhou (Canton) or Taipei – to find parallels.

Who cares? Well, anybody who is grateful that we survived the recent national and world recession better than any other major metropolis in America and that we are positioned to prosper greatly in the dawning recovery. In human terms, an increasing orientation toward global competition means that there are more jobs for our high school and college graduates than are found in other U.S. communities. It means that our badly overcommitted state budget is only that, not a basket case like California’s. Imagine how high your state and local tax burden would be today – or how low the level of services – if we had not had the export-led economic growth of the past decade.

The shift to an international economic strategy already is observable in growing activity by government and by associations like the Washington Council on International Trade and the Greater Seattle Trade Development Alliance.

Plans are afoot to send another mission to the promising trade region of Eastern Russia in the spring.

Nearly unremarked in national or local media was Rep. John Miller’s significant final accomplishment in Congress: passage of an act creating a “Cascadia Corridor Commission” to promote practical ties among the Northwest states and the provinces of Western Canada. On the Seattle waterfront, also mostly unnoticed, Port of Seattle preparations are under way for a unique international conference center, with United Nations quality simultaneous translation facilities.

Whether in the expanding numbers of small-niche businesses or in burgeoning professional and other services, it is hard simply to keep track of the globally oriented economic activity around Seattle. The International Section of the Washington State Bar Association, for example, now lists more than 500 members from the Seattle-Tacoma area.

All this is transforming our metropolitan region in positive ways, contributing the maximum to our prosperity and contact with the outside world and the minimum to crime and pollution. What other community development strategy offers as much?

In the future, every economically successful metropolitan area will have to be international in outlook. In the most important ways, we already are so, and not only because Fortune has certified us.

Editor’s note: Is Seattle really “the best city for global business in the U.S.”? In the current issue of Fortune magazine, a survey of 900 business executives suggests that the answer is yes. By various criteria, Seattle ranked highest among 60 American cities. Of the top five cities on Fortune’s list, Seattle surpassed Houston, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York. Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based public-policy organization, is at work on a project called “International Seattle: The Making of a Globally Competitive Community.” Examining the Fortune findings in light of this area’s international strengths and weaknesses, Bruce Chapman, Discovery’s president, and John Hamer, senior fellow, arrived at two different – and provocative – conclusions.

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.