Monday, June 14, 2010

The Difference Between Seattle and Portland

Portland has recently launched a campaign to attract jobs, so that all the highly educated coffee shop workers in the Pearl District might have a chance of using their degrees sometime soon.

While urban planners have not stopped fawning over its light rail system since the first spike went in the ground, Metro Portland currently has 10.5% unemployment, while regional rival Seattle is at 8.2%. One reason Seattle is doing better economically is because it's home to industries that run trade surpluses - particularly business software and aerospace, neither of which has a big presence in Portland.

One of the biggest sources of job losses for many regions isn't a glossy marketing brochure from a competing state's Econ Dev Authority, but foreign competition. Rubber, steel, autos are sectors where we run big trade deficits, and the result is clear in many parts of the eastern Great Lakes.

Buffalo has turned a corner in economic development, not by telling everyone it's "cool" or "creative", but by taking advantage of its border with Canada. They got Labatt Brewing to move from Norwalk, Connecticut for this reason. They've also got a big food exporter with Rich Products, and an unemployment rate below the national average.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, exports like soybeans, animal feed, frozen foods, and wheat aren't going to reach the "I need to write about a big idea" threshold many urban pundits require to keep their academic chattering at a high level. But there are two major drains on any region's job growth - automation and foreign competition. You can't do much about the former, but you can do a lot about the latter, as long as you recruit industries where America runs trade surpluses - no matter how boring they might sound to the people who write "Top 20 Cities for ...." magazine lists.

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