Dispatch From Seattle

A New Boom -- and the Who-Hawks Are in the What-Bowl?

Passengers view the Seattle skyline as they arrive by ferry from Bainbridge Island. The city, which saw a three-year recession, is booming with new jobs, businesses and homes and relishing an atypically good football team.
Passengers view the Seattle skyline as they arrive by ferry from Bainbridge Island. The city, which saw a three-year recession, is booming with new jobs, businesses and homes and relishing an atypically good football team. (By Robert Sumner -- Getty Images)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

SEATTLE -- Much ado has been made here about the cost, hassle and heartbreak of getting tickets to see the surprising Seattle Seahawks play Sunday in Detroit in their first Super Bowl.

Finding tickets, though, is child's play compared with finding a construction crane to erect a building in the Seahawks' hometown. A ticket to the Super Bowl could be had online for about $2,500, but no amount of money, it seems, can secure a large crane until the beginning of next year.

"They are all in use, and the wait is longer now than during Seattle's high-tech boom," said Andrew Morrow, who reserves cranes for Morrow Equipment, the nation's largest crane dealer.

Just as the perennially mediocre Seahawks have stunned legions of local doubters by muscling their way into the National Football League's showcase game, so has this city's economy -- wobbly with a high-tech hangover for half a decade -- startled hometown folks by taking off at a sprint.

This would have been another fine winter to wallow in the stoic gloom that is second nature to Seattle, the most northerly and, in winter, darkest, big city in the Lower 48. Consecutive days of rain (27) approached the record. Mudslides have buried commuter rail lines, sinkholes have closed major highways, and Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) has declared a state of emergency on account of unrelieved wetness, enabling counties to seek federal aid for the cleanup.

Nothing, though, salves the blues (which take diagnosable form here as seasonal affective disorder, a mood ailment brought on by lack of light) like a winning football team -- combined with overwhelming evidence that you and your neighbors are living in a city where there's money, jobs, growth and the promise of a whole lot more.

Next door to the Lusty Lady, a porno movie house near the waterfront in downtown Seattle, construction has begun on a high-rise Four Seasons hotel and condominium building. Atop the new building, one of half a dozen opulent condo towers planned for a neighborhood long known for seediness, there is to be a condo of Trumpian pretensions. The three-floor, 30,000-square-foot penthouse with views of Puget Sound may sell for $60 million, according to the Seattle Times.

Beneath that towering symbol of excess, there are countless indicators that Seattle is rapidly recovering from a three-year recession that was far more severe here than it was in the nation as a whole. Between 2001 and 2003, 4.5 percent of the city's jobs disappeared, compared with a 1.6 percent decline nationally. Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago, and nearly 15,000 aerospace jobs disappeared. Hundreds of dot-com companies went broke. Office furniture was given away in downtown parking lots.

Seattle's steep slide seemed even steeper because of the once-in-an-epoch explosion of wealth that had preceded it, when Microsoft, Amazon.com, Starbucks and several other companies minted young millionaires by the thousands. The boom now emerging is certain not to be of that magnitude, but it seems likely to be more sustainable.

Job growth in Seattle last year (3.6 percent) was more than double the national rate. In the next two years, the city's market for retail expansion is regarded as the hottest in the United States, according to Marcus & Millichap, an investment brokerage company based in Encino, Calif. "Because the city has a larger hole to dig out of, there is more momentum to the recovery," said Hessam Nadji, the company's managing director for research. He said the industries that caused the downturn are now causing the comeback -- software, aerospace, tourism and trade.

Microsoft is hiring. Early-stage venture capital is flowing into software companies at three times the rate of 2003. Boeing's corporate headquarters remain in Chicago, but the company still builds planes here, and the company set a record last year for commercial aircraft orders. Newcomers are rolling into town again, as rents and housing prices soar. Builders are scouring the country for construction cranes because virtually all storefront, warehouse, office and apartment space is full.

When it comes to the economy, this has always been a streaky town. Residents are accustomed to big booms and bad busts. They even find them amusing, in a stoic, quasi-masochistic kind of way. After Boeing layoffs in the 1970s, a billboard here read "Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn off the lights?" And booms produce complaints, about traffic, conspicuous consumption and slick-looking interlopers from California.

When it comes to professional football, Seattle is far more consistent: Consistently not very good.

Until this year.

With no precedent for the Seahawks' excellence, Seattleites seem confused about how crazily happy they should be. In a front-page headline that ran four days after the Seahawks had secured the victory that put them into the Super Bowl, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer asked, "Frenzy Slow to Build, Is It Bewilderment With Success or Famous Reserve?"

Super Bowls do strange things to Americans. Redskins fans dress up as hogs. Green Bay fans wear cheese on their heads. If Seattle does win, it's possible that large numbers of people here will glue feathers to their heads and caw like giant birds of prey. But it's not likely.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company