Competition is good, despite Seattle port’s call for cooperation
Some thoughts on the news that the Grand Alliance of three shipping lines will move its business from Seattle to Tacoma:
Once again we hear the squawks of outrage over the pilferage of one municipality’s important business by another, the revival of terms like “short term” and “downward competitive cycle,” the lamenting over lost jobs and squandering of public investment in costly and idle infrastructure.
Oh wait. We weren’t talking about basketball teams?
Curiously, those terms were conspicuous by their absence, at least from up north, when Maersk relocated its local port of call from Tacoma to Seattle a few years back.
In the interest of efficiency, and to save everyone from potential personal injury from eyes dramatically rolled over the feigned outrage expressed every time Tacoma or Seattle steals a shipping line or an investment company or a bluegrass festival (OK, blame that one on Bellevue), from now on we will take it as given that the injured party is miffed. That way, everyone gets back to work that much sooner.
Or perhaps a paraphrase from “The Godfather” might suffice: It’s not personal, it’s just business.
The Port of Seattle’s news release about the Grand Alliance decision includes a call for “a dialogue about how the two ports can cooperate in order to maximize return on taxpayer investment.”
This is hardly a new proposition, but it remains a remarkably blatherful pronouncement even for a region with a tendency to overproduce such vacuous language.
The commissions can hold all the joint meetings and issue all the happy-talk statements they like, but the combination of the two into some sort of super-regional port authority is a nonstarter. Whatever questions and misgivings the residents of Pierce County might have about the Port of Tacoma, they’ll happily deal with those rather than cede any control, not to mention the returns on their investments, to a “partnership” between the two.
Regional competition, frankly, is not a bad arrangement. Some competition is good, even among public and quasi-governmental entities. It helps ward off complacency and encourages the competitors to focus on their strengths. Merging the regional port operations is not going to remove or even reduce competitive pressures, not with options ranging from Vancouver to Portland, Prince Rupert, the Bay Area, Southern California, even Gulf and Atlantic ports by virtue of the widened Panama Canal.
If Seattle can’t compete with the Port of Tacoma, which is, after all, an even longer sail down Puget Sound, then maybe Tacoma ought to grab more of the container business. If the Port of Seattle is better suited than Tacoma to hosting cruise-ship lines, let it have that business.
Unless, that is, there’s a cruise line that would like to add Tacoma to its list of exotic ports of call.
The latest bit of news involving international trade is a reminder of an important economic development opportunity this community needs to leverage.
The port generates jobs on the docks, at railroads and trucking companies, in warehouses and distribution centers. What more could we do? Could we add more companies in freight forwarding, including their management offices? How about the import-export financing business? Do the local colleges have programs in logistics?
The beauty of this is that, unlike efforts to develop some sort of tech industry from scratch, we don’t have to invent this. Tacoma is already in international trade. We know something about this. We can do something with what we’ve got.
And, not to give anyone ideas, if there are companies unhappy doing business where they are now, we might just have a place for them to consider.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. His column normally appears Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.