When We Talks

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell says city still has its mojo, asks tech leaders to get engaged – GeekWire


Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, left, speaks with GeekWire co-founder John Cook at the GeekWire Summit at Block 41 in Seattle on Oct. 6. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Seattle has hit a rough patch. It’s struggling to address a homelessness crisis, a shortage of affordable housing, educational inequities and basic safety concerns. While the pandemic has receded, downtown businesses remain at 40% occupancy.

But fear not. Seattle still has its mojo, said Mayor Bruce Harrell at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday morning.

Harrell told the crowd in Seattle that he’s working to build bridges with leaders and community members in order to strengthen and improve the city.

“I’m not here to entertain you, by the way,” he said. “I’m here to build relationships.”

Seattle in recent years has been gripped by a tension between the city’s leadership and local companies — particularly tech companies such as Amazon — which create desirable, high paying jobs, but also drive income inequality.

Harrell, who took office in January, said that he’s taking a different approach from past elected officials by personally and regularly communicating with company executives, including Amazon CEO Andy Jassy.

Amazon has had a rocky relationship with its hometown in recent years, and Harrell is clearly working to mend that connection. His rapport with Jassy? “Very good,” Harrell said.

The mayor emphasized the need for the business and tech industry to get more involved in civic life to help make improvements in the city.

“There’s just plenty of opportunities for you all to engage, and I’m just a call away to facilitate that engagement,” he said.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

The rebuilding of tech relationships could help bolster the city’s tax base for funding its operations.

Harrell’s 2023-’24 budget proposal, released last week, said the tech sector “continued to be a driving force behind the growth of the regional economy,” specifically citing the headquarters of Amazon and Microsoft in the region, as well as engineering offices for Apple, Google (Alphabet), and Facebook (Meta).

The mayor is going to need to move quickly to shift tech leaders’ apparently souring opinions of the Emerald City.

“Whether the city of Seattle remains the focus of technology sector’s regional growth is a point of uncertainty looking forward,” the proposal noted. “Several of the region’s larger employers are making capital investments in office facilities elsewhere in the region, and this could preview a shift in where growth will be focused in coming years.”

“There’s just plenty of opportunities for you all to engage, and I’m just a call away to facilitate that engagement.”

Amazon is one example of that trend. After a series of high-profile political battles over the city’s attempts to boost corporate taxes to fund human services, the tech giant shifted its growth in the Seattle region to nearby Bellevue, Wash., at the same time the company builds a second headquarters, known as HQ2, in Arlington, Va.

At last year’s GeekWire Summit, Jassy said “[W]e don’t think of HQ1 being Seattle any longer. We really think of it as Puget Sound.”

But the lingering effects of the pandemic have complicated matters. Amazon in July announced plans to pause work on several towers there, citing ongoing uncertainty about the impact of remote and hybrid work on its office designs.

Harrell’s budget also reflects those realities, saying the work-from-home model “appears to have permanently shifted employment patterns for at least some industries.

“A smaller commuting work force will translate into less day-time demand for restaurants, retailers and other downtown businesses,” the budget added. “At the same time, fewer productive employees working in the city will also reduce or at least slow the growth of the taxable economic activity that supports revenue streams such as the Business and Occupation Tax and the Jumpstart Payroll Expense Tax.”

The mayor is eager to revive the downtown’s former vitality, and acknowledged that he first needs to make it safe “everywhere you go.” That means recruiting and training more police officers and getting more city ambassadors on the streets to help people in need.

“I cannot mandate people to come downtown and unless there’s something to drive them there,” Harrell said, adding that he’s actively asking people “what will attract you” to the downtown.

Despite the challenges, Harrell remains pumped about the city where he grew up, played football for the University of Washington Huskies and earned his law degree. He just needs to get more people on board, Harrell said.

“I can tell by the energy in this room that the mojo’s here,” he said. “We have to believe it collectively.”


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