Seattle’s silver bullet: civic stewards who give back

The $279 million gift by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Washingtonmarks a historic record but it’s also in line with a historic Seattle strength. Civic stewardship, particularly by people and companies with the means to write checks and (oh-so-Seattle-nicely) knock heads, is an enormous advantage here.

By almost any economic metric, Seattle punches above its weight. The same is true in stewardship, something lost in most American cities by their loss of corporate headquarters and wealthy individuals with deep roots and passionate commitment. The alignment of corporate interest with community health was once a given. No more. And with most places being branch offices, the best they can hope for is their modest allotment from headquarters in (deductible) “community giving.”

Stewardship on the level practiced here acts as an accelerant on other economic strengths, from the “hard” ones such as large headquarters to the “soft” ones such as livability and Seattle’s unusual talent for reinvention.

The classic example is Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos’ pivotal roles in turning run-down South Lake Union into America’s most influential urban innovation. Other cities want to copy it. Good luck unless you have Seattle’s stewardship. Likewise, the Gateses chose to put the headquarters of the world’s largest non-profit in the heart of the city, where it feeds off the “creative friction” of SLU and downtown.

I’ve lived and worked in six big metros and have never seen anything that approaches Seattle’s strength in stewardship. Maybe Dallas and Houston come close, but that’s oil money and a whole other story.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Run through the pipelines

Pull carbon out of the ground

Pay the piper soon