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Memo to Seattle: Cooperation runs both ways

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on March 10, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
March 9, 2012 4:54 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Ah, yes, cooperation. A favorite theme of Seattle leaders when it comes to the Port of Tacoma.

The port is suddenly poised for a massive expansion. On Thursday, the “Grand Alliance” – a consortium of three big shipping lines – announced plans to shift their cargoes to Washington United Terminals on the west side of the Blair Waterway.

NYK Lines, OOCL and Hapag-Lloyd may wind up moving as much as 400,000 cargo containers through Blair, a surge that will again make Tacoma the state’s leading seaport and bring Pierce County a slew of high-paying jobs.

Unfortunately, Tacoma’s gain is Seattle’s loss. The Grand Alliance now operates out of Terminal 18 at the Port of Seattle. Ships, cargo and jobs will simply be moving down the Sound a few miles.

The news has been greeted up north with barely controlled apoplexy. The Port of Seattle issued a statement pointing to its $1 billion investment in seaport infrastructure – which could wind up under-utilized – and the loss of livelihoods on its waterfront.

“We continue to call for a dialogue about how the two ports can cooperate in order to maximize return on taxpayer investment,” the statement continued.
Seattle Port Commissioner John Creighton described it as the latest round of a “race to the bottom” that is keeping his port from raising its rates and threatening the maintenance of its terminals.

In reality, it’s not a race to the bottom so much as a response to opportunity. Tacoma’s port has immense capacity inside the Blair. Washington Waterways Terminal, for example, sits on 102 acres; it offers six immense cranes and an on-dock rail yard for direct transfer of containers from ship to freight train.

Ideally, the port would be snagging shipping lines from, say, British Columbia. But these businesses own calculators, and they grab value where they find it. It’s a competitive world, even within the Puget Sound region.

Ask the Tacomans who are still feeling the aftershocks of Russell Investments’ move to Seattle two years ago.

Russell was one of the pillars of downtown Tacoma. Its employees were renowned for their volunteerism and citizenship.

Now they’ve been uprooted. The company’s headquarters on A Street – arguably the city’s pre-eminent office building – has been vacant since Russell left. Its mortgage was recently downgraded by Fitch Ratings.

Russell’s move may have been foreordained by a change in its leadership and the availability of Seattle’s landmark Chase Center at a bargain-basement price. But the company was also actively recruited from Tacoma by Seattle’s mayor, City Council and downtown merchants. Seattle offered Russell a fat tax break to relocate.

So cooperation is good if it keeps Seattle business from migrating to Tacoma, but not a consideration when it comes to enticing Tacoma business to Seattle?

We’d prefer to think of cooperation – and competition – as a two-way street.

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