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Business Leaders In King, Pierce Counties Ask: Where Does The Economy Go From Here?

"Amazon headquarters sphere domes" by Kiewic is licensed under CC by 2.0
Sphere structures outside Amazon's headquarters in Seattle

Business leaders in King and Pierce counties took stock of the local economy at two separate summits Thursday, as they sought ways to harness the region's record job growth to solve pervasive problems.

Economists at the annual King County Economic Forecast Conference told business leaders and elected officials that the county would likely continue to see economic growth.

"It's tricky because we need to emphasize that we cannot take growth for granted," said Community Attributes CEO Chris Mefford in his presentation on the regional economy. "But, that said, there are a lot of positive attributes about this region that are sturdy as can be."

Some of those attributes include the region's livability, from the area's natural beauty to its political culture, and the diversity of its industries. 

But with growth, economists and politicians agreed, there have been many challenges.

Housing affordability was chief among them. In her analysis of the national economy, Zillow senior economist Skylar Olsen said one of Seattle's major challenges was not to become like New York or Los Angeles, where it's virtually impossible for lower-income renters to afford market-rate apartments.

"And we're moving that way right? If you ask the mayor or if you ask anyone else who's really focused on big issues for Seattle, it is homelessness and it's about this," Olsen said.

Other challenges include education and workforce development. There is a high demand for tech jobs that companies sometimes have trouble filling locally. And other industries like maritime and manufacturing struggle to recruit new workers as people begin to retire.

In Pierce County, business leaders celebrated their success at recruiting companies with highly-skilled jobs, even after a year with some high-profile setbacks.

In January, State Farm Insurance, one of the county's largest private employers, announced it would vacate its Tacoma offices by year's end. Six months earlier, the dialysis company DaVita said it would move 500 jobs from Tacoma to Federal Way.

Leaders in the county also made a public full court press for Amazon's second headquarters, which fell flat.

Among the victories marked by leaders of the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County was the Silicon Valley-based network security company Infoblox opening a 120-person office in Tacoma. 

Pierce County leaders are intent on cultivating more local companies so fewer residents have to commute north. Currently, about half of the county's working population leaves the county's borders for work. 

Bruce Kendall, the president of the Economic Development Board, said solving that problem requires courting a broad range of industries including technology, health care, and manufacturing. 

"The idea that you get a big whale that's going to take care of everybody is really old thinking and we haven't embraced that in a long, long time," he said in an interview. "It's about a diverse portfolio of companies across a lot of different sectors of the economy." 

He said he hopes Pierce County plays a role in manufacturing Boeing's next plane and expects states to begin bidding for that work this year. 

But he also raised concerns about a blacklash to steel and aluminum imports ordered by the Trump administration, calling Pierce County "the most trade-dependent county in the most trade-dependent state" in the nation. 

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.
Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.