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Russell courtship was a stab in the back

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 9, 2009 at 8:14 pm with 1 Comment »
September 9, 2009 5:20 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

In opting for a future in Seattle, the Russell Investment Group made a sober business decision based on its perceived interests. We get that.

But there’s something we don’t get: The way some of Seattle’s civic and political leaders leaped at the chance to grab a neighboring city’s largest downtown private employer.
Russell was probably Seattle-bound one way or another.

Frank Russell started the company in Tacoma 73 years ago, and its history in this area has been long and distinguished. Russell employees – roughly three-quarters of whom live in Pierce County – have been notable assets to their communities. They’ve provided extraordinary volunteer service and other contributions to charitable causes and nonprofit organizations.

We will long remember then-CEO Craig Ueland’s donation of $250,000 to the 2006 United Way campaign – which was matched by Russell itself, then by George and Dion Russell.
Although the company’s payroll has been a pillar of the Tacoma economy, its strong ethic of corporate citizenship and philanthropy may be missed even more when it leaves at the end of next year.

But the Russell Investment Group’s ties to Tacoma have slowly weakened since George Russell sold the company to Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual in 1998. Ueland is gone, and Russell’s board of directors is now Milwaukee-dominated.

The die may have been cast when last year’s financial crisis depressed prices on millions of square feet of office real estate in downtown Seattle – including the landmark Chase Center that once housed the defunct WaMu. Northwestern Mutual saw the opportunity and bought the building for Russell. No doubt the price was right.

Given Seattle’s inherent advantage in newly cheap, centrally located, Class A office space, city leaders could have skipped their push to yank Russell out of Tacoma. The Downtown Seattle Association, Mayor Greg Nickels and others courted the company. When Russell announced its move Wednesday, Nickels and the Seattle City Council were poised to give it a special tax break.

They didn’t have to. It probably made no difference in the end. At times like this, a city finds out who its friends are.

There’s a pattern in the way some Seattle leaders appear to view the rest of the Puget Sound region. The Russell courtship is reminiscent of the way King County Executive Ron Sims went all out to build light rail transit through Seattle – then suddenly decided Snohomish, South King and Pierce County didn’t need rail when it came time to approve a second round of construction. Regionalism cooperation is important, it seems, only if Seattle is the prime beneficiary.

The problem with stiffing the neighbors is that Seattle still needs the support of those neighbors for its big transportation projects – the Alaskan Way viaduct replacement, for example – and other expensive improvements.

Memo to Nickels, et al: If regional cooperation isn’t a two-way street, it’s not cooperation, and it doesn’t exist.

Leave a comment Comments → 1
  1. jimkingjr says:

    Regional cooperation ISN’T a two-way street- never has been. When will Tacoma leaders stand up and tell Seattle to take a flying leap?

    Maybe Mayor Meritt will be what turns the trick- but even if we get him elected, no doubt too many of our other local “leaders” will be ready to undercut efforts to stand up for Tacoma in order to curry favor with those Seattle interests.

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