King County is King in Economic Growth

King County’s economy is the fastest growing in the United States. Proactive development policies have attracted tech jobs and major manufacturing companies in the decade since the Seattle Fault earthquake.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

After a M7.2 earthquake struck in 2015, county leaders came together to discuss how the disaster could catalyze opportunity for comprehensive economic recovery. They asked an important question: how should King County’s economy be emphasized in the overall recovery process vis-à-vis the recovery of citizens’ health and well-being? “The two are not mutually exclusive,” said a former county council member.

Board MeetingAfter lengthy discussion and debate, county leaders agreed on a strategy that was mindful to socioeconomic inequalities that existed before the earthquake hit. It was decided that economic growth after the earthquake must be inclusive of all socioeconomic groups that call King County home.

With this vision, the focus turned to rebuilding and expanding the education, health care, and social service industry–King County’s largest employment sector. A massive investment was made by the county, state, and federal governments in boosting the county’s K-12 and higher education systems. The University of Washington recently opened an “environmental education focused” satellite campus in Issaquah. Their programs focus on environmental studies, natural hazard mitigation, urban planning, and sustainability.

King County’s heavily damaged building stock and infrastructure created the opportunity for thousands of new, high-paying construction jobs. For example, about 150 schools required reconstruction or replacement. Rebuilding these schools has helped improve the well-being of a K-12 students, a group of critical importance to King County’s future as a global leader in the economy.

A King County elected official initiated a process to take inventory of the stakeholders that would be important during recovery. Ten years on, this process facilitated many stakeholders who have a hand in making King County a great place to live, work, and play.

Two core principles of the recovery process were established by King County leaders and stakeholders relatively soon after the earthquake happened. They were 1) cooperation between King County and other government entities at the local, state and federal levels, and 2) facilitation and respect of citizens’ wants and desires by King County and other government players in the recovery process. One such entity is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

King County’s transportation, energy, communications, water management, and solid waste management infrastructures were all heavily damaged by the earthquake. King County, in partnership with other government entities, decided it was urgent to rebuild these systems to be reflective of citizens’ recovery-driven needs and desires.

“Paradoxically, the Seattle Fault earthquake created the opportunity to build a world-class infrastructure system, a system that all residents of King County and all levels of government have had a hand in crafting” said a senior county planner.

King County’s world class infrastructure has crystalized opportunities to make its economy competitive on the global stage. Consequently, a landmark trade agreement was brokered by a prominent King County politician with the City of Shanghai, China. This has created an exchange marketplace that has greatly contributed to King County’s economic growth and state in general.

Despite these positive outcomes, the Seattle Fault earthquake created an array of obstacles and challenges. An analyst with the King County Office of Economic and Financial Analysis noted that the primary challenge immediately after the earthquake was the lack of capital, investment opportunities, and economic revitalization.

“In the immediate weeks and months after the earthquake, we were looking down a long, winding road in terms of economic stabilization, investment, and recovery” said the analyst.

For example, Boeing, Microsoft, and the University of Washington’s facilities sustained heavy damaged due the earthquake. Employing 76,000, 40,000, and 28,000 people, respectively, their damaged facilities resulted in large economic losses. This was primarily due to lost productivity and employee hours, misfortunes that amounted to billions of dollars worth of lost revenue and output.

Another challenge that became readily apparent after the earthquake was the forces of neighborhood activists. Many have resisted large scale, high-density housing developments that have been built in county. The reasoning behind their opposition were concerns about overcrowding, possible gentrification, and stresses on transportation systems.

“Even though many of these developments have large affordable housing components, I’m concerned about how new residents will overcrowd our bus and rapid transit lines,” says Louise Daniels, a West Seattle resident.

Another marker of recovery has been investments in the small business community over the past ten years. This has been the biggest factor in the county’s economic recovery. Small businesses are key to the economic, social, and cultural revitalization of King County.

With this in mind, five years ago King County Council established the Office of Small Business Services (OSBS). The OSBS established several programs to assist small businesses to get back up and running again.

In a relatively short amount of time, it became clear that it was possible to take advantage of the disaster’s silver linings. The event presented the public and private sector with the opportunity to expand on pre-existing efforts for sustainability.

With that being said, King County leaders identified an opportunity to foster greater cohesion between sustainability efforts, county environmental regulations, and building codes. The primary focus of this is that county codes and environmental regulations be reflective of the latest sustainability practices and principles.

Today, all county building codes and environmental regulations have been updated to ensure that private developers use sustainable practices in their building, environmental, and infrastructural projects.

Greensburg, Kansas is an example of a municipality which prioritized planning and sustainable development regulations after a F5 tornado demolished 95% of the city. Rather than move away from the disaster, citizens of Greensburg decided to turn the destruction into a vision to rebuild into a sustainable community.

The city’s sustainable comprehensive plan states, “A truly sustainable community is one that balances economic, ecological, and social impacts of development.” Greensburg has lead by example and King County looked towards them as a model to incorporate sustainability into their environmental regulations and building codes.

In the past ten years, King County has taken great strides in order to diversify its economy during the recovery process. County leaders looked beyond technology industries in order to broaden its economic base. For example, King County has revitalized its manufacturing sector. Ford Motor Company decided to build their solar vehicle plant in the town of Fall City. It has provided hundreds of high-paying, middle class jobs for citizens in desperate need of them.

“I am so fortunate that I have found a high-wage, full benefits job at the Fall City Ford Motor Company plant” says Hennings Tierkopf, a lifelong King County resident.

Three years ago, Ford Motor Company decided to move its headquarters from Dearborn, Michigan to Seattle. This flooded Seattle and King County with much need white-collar, high-paying jobs.

The disaster served as a chance to increase economic output and vitality. Since the earthquake, Seattle has stolen the spotlight from Silicon Valley, with the rise of a number of new tech companies calling Seattle and King County home. Seattle tech startups such as Wallop! and other tech companies have revolutionized the tech world, being much more inclusive and progressive in their treatment of workers here at home and around the world than Google or Apple ever were.

HQOver the past ten years, King County has relied on a vast number of resources to become a worldwide leader in economic growth and output. These resources can be characterized along a continuum – from small businesses all the way up to the largest corporations.

For example, the private sector, such as Boeing and Microsoft, have invested billions of dollars into public and private education across King County. Instead of heavily focusing in on science and math at the K-12 level, curriculum has emphasized arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical education in an equitable manner.

This has gone towards fostering a skilled and educated workforce, a #1 prerequisite for a strong economy. The companies see this as an investment in human resources to create a highly successful economy in King County.

One such area that the King County workforce has excelled at is training and preparedness in emergency situations. Emergency preparedness programs were established in schools as well as public and private entities, spearheaded by the “Citizen Safety First” initiative.

If a disaster on the scale of the 2014 Seattle fault earthquake occurs again, students and private and public employees will be prepared to take appropriate, safe action during an emergency situation.

Over the course of the past ten years, King County has funneled billions of public and private monies into its economy in order to reach viability on the national and specifically, the global level. Since King County’s economy has reached stratospheric levels, some elected officials and members of academia have called into question the rationality of devoting so much money to the economy.

“I feel like there should be a large amount of money prioritized in the county budget for social justice programs” said a longtime council member. “Doing so would head the call to further correct and extinguish socioeconomic inequalities and injustices.” Even though post-disaster economic, social, socioeconomic, and cultural recovery has gone a long way, revitalization of the economy need not distract from implementing a strong program of social justice for King County.

One such issue that arose was the removal of community gardens and green space to build large-scale housing developments. Local citizens cried foul, as this corrupted the very meaning of social justice that King County is known for. With this in mind, local community groups looked towards a similar situation in Istanbul, Turkey.

This government-sanctioned removal of green space should not be treated lightly. The removal and redevelopment of green spaces for what may be perceived as the betterment of social equity may actually result in the hindering of livelihoods of those within the local communities. An example of governmentally sanctioned development at the expense of the local community can be exemplified by the Gezi Park case study.