It’s been a little over a week since the City of Seattle voted unanimously to enact a $275 per employee tax on it’s for profit businesses grossing more than $20 million per year in the City – expected to raise around $48 million in new tax revenue that the City indicates it will spend on homelessness.
Leading up to the decision, the business community tried to send Seattle a message. Amazon, who many other communities around the country are pursuing with vigor, paused construction and discussed not creating up to 8,000 additional jobs. In the days since, Pierce County (neighbor to the south) and its cities have since announced a $275 per employee incentive per year for five years in addition to up to $1,500 per year in incentives that businesses creating at least 5 jobs can already claim.
The decision in Seattle has been made subject to the success of any referendum to repeal it. However, are there lessons from Seattle that businesses, economic developers and even cities can glean from this? Yes. Here are my top five.
- Be prepared to defend economic development decisions. Collectively, we want jobs. . . better jobs. . . jobs for our kids. . . etc. And elected officials know that and usually campaign on things like low unemployment and higher wages. Despite the fact that creating jobs is still the political will in most communities, those winds can swiftly change. Typically, this happens when an incentive package is viewed as being too rich or the intensity of growth in a specific location enlists a greater negative public response than the positive attitude associated with jobs. Every economic development project should prepare and have ready an economic impact analysis and/or a return on investment statement that show how that activity benefits a community. More and more this is becoming critical to not only sell elected officials on the benefit of economic development, but to give the public confidence it is in their best interest as well.
- Include political due diligence in any site location decision. Businesses base site location decisions on a combination of factors including site development costs, logistics, operational cost factors, tax liabilities and a judgement as to whether the incentives offered can be delivered as promised. Additionally, they will look at the current political situation, but they often stop short of fully assessing the local political history of the community or evaluating future political risks. These risks come from natural cycles at the local level which are tied into the leadership of the community, the health of the community and the amount of growth it may have already embraced. I’ve written a previous blog about this topic which goes into more detail here.
- Know the facts and be honest about them. It appears from some reporting that misinformation about the cost of homelessness in Seattle may have been circulated and used a justification for the adoption of the head tax. Unfortunately, misinformation spreads immeasurably fast these, which justifies the attention to detail that economic developers need when it comes to attracting new economic development projects and putting the deal together. Often, I’ve seen how easy it is for a city to say, “Yes, we can do that” only to realize they can’t. I’ve also seen examples like that of a community that touted its available water capacity as the basis for attracting an economic development project. But after some digging into the details, the capacity was only ‘on-paper’ – the water could be produced but couldn’t be distributed. One solution to ensure accuracy for all is the use of third party site certification. However, even site certification has its challenges, which I discuss here.
- It’s not good business ‘poaching’ businesses from your neighbors. There is a difference between a business deciding it is in their advantage (lower rents, closer to customers, etc.) to relocate from one community to an adjacent community and the instance where a neighboring community acts to lure businesses. The latter creates negative competition and distrust locally. Moreover, when the gloves come off and incentives are involved it can often raise to the level of being addressed by a state legislature, which often results in further restrictions on the right kinds of economic development activities.
- Be aware that policies like “Growth Management” lead to future political, social and economic challenges that place business and economic development in the center of debate. One of greatest challenges in the greater Seattle area is its complex state growth management laws restrict nearly all development to within defined urban growth boundaries that have not had any significant revisions since established in the early ‘90s. Well intended in vision, this governing regulatory approach has some critical flaws in implementation. For example, the “density” first approach to accommodating future population and job growth in the Puget Sound region has driven up the costs of housing, construction and infrastructure because vacant land supply is critically low, and redevelopment built-out areas to higher intensity uses adds expense. Unfortunately, expanded growth boundaries aren’t expected soon. Second, the reality is that investments in infrastructure to support growth have very rarely been made prior to and in full knowledge of the growth occurring, relying on a “growth should pay for itself” philosophy that clashes with legal requirements that a development only pay its fair share. Even mitigation collected from development has six years to be spent. It’s no wonder there is public outcry. This disconnect has left cities in the position of always playing catch up on infrastructure, services and capacity
It will be awhile before we know the true impact of Seattle’s head tax. But what is clear is that it has broad implications on economic development – implications that may not be the solutions advertised.
About the Author
David Toyer is the founder of Toyer Strategic Consulting – a firm that advises businesses and communities on economic development and land use. David has nearly two decades of experience and has worked on projects throughout the country. For more information about David Toyer or Toyer Strategic Consulting, visit www.toyerstrategic.com.