Business Columns & Blogs

Where real estate is concerned, it never hurts to ask

Breathtaking views shows NASA flight over Greenland’s glaciers

An expanse of snow and ice on Greenland's southern glaciers is seen up close in this stunning footage shared on Twitter by NASA test pilot Gerrit Everson, who soared above in a P-3 Orion. The timelapse footage is part of the agency’s Operation Ice
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An expanse of snow and ice on Greenland's southern glaciers is seen up close in this stunning footage shared on Twitter by NASA test pilot Gerrit Everson, who soared above in a P-3 Orion. The timelapse footage is part of the agency’s Operation Ice

A vast, icy and empty land of dubious economic value, whose acquisition by the United States provoked much ridicule and criticism for wasting Americans’ money.

But enough about Alaska.

Last week’s kerfuffle over a proposal for the United States to buy Greenland from Denmark provided much merriment on an otherwise slow late-summer news day, but there were some serious aspects and interesting historic parallels to the idea.

It’s still not clear whether the acquisition of Greenland was ever serious – was it a casual remark made in passing that at some point, from misunderstanding or miscommunication, became an actual point of policy?

Maybe it wasn’t serious, but preposterous? Not even close.

While the Danes got a bit huffy about the brazenness of the suggestion that Greenland had a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn, what inspired the discussion in the first place was Danish grumbling about how much they’re spending to subsidize Greenland. And while Americans dismissed the story as one more act in the ongoing Trump circus, the current president wouldn’t even be the first to suggest adding Greenland to the American portfolio. Harry Truman actually offered $100 million for Greenland. And he wasn’t first either. During the Andrew Johnson administration, the U.S. explored the idea of buying not just Greenland but Iceland too (a package deal!).

Nations add or lose land from war or territories separating to become independent entities (in the business world, these would be called spin-offs), but they also expand and contract through real-estate deals. The Lewis & Clark expedition, celebrated at several historical sites in Washington, was an attempt to figure out just what the U.S. had acquired in a whopper of a real-estate deal, the Louisiana Purchase. (What is now Washington state was the result of a treaty with Great Britain.) And it’s not like we haven’t done business with Denmark before – the U.S. Virgin Islands were acquired from Denmark in 1917.

Which brings us to another real-estate transaction of considerable local interest and contemporary relevance.

Seward’s Folly was the epithet with which some critics tagged the acquisition of Alaska in 1867 (the same year the government thought about buying Greenland) from Russia. A Wikipedia article on the topic suggests that there was actually considerable public support for the deal. Among the perceived attributes: the value of resources in Alaska itself; its location as an access point to promising trade with Asia; and its strategic position as a way of putting the squeeze on the British and possibly pushing what is now British Columbia into American control.

Ever since, Alaska’s economic history has been tied to the Puget Sound region’s. A lot of Seattle companies trace their origins to the discovery of gold in the Klondike, and their fortuitous location in one of the prime jumping-off points for prospectors. This region built boats for the Alaskan fishing fleet.

Tacoma has long been a big part of the Alaskan economic story, as a supplier of just about everything to Alaska, and Alaska has been an important part of Tacoma’s economy. The Northwest Seaport Alliance (which includes the Port of Tacoma) says more than 80 percent of containerized ocean shipments between Alaska and the Lower 48. The move of Sea-Land’s operations from Seattle to Tacoma in the 1980s was considered a huge coup for the port.

And now Tote Maritime Alaska has announced plans to move its headquarters (with about 150 employees) from Federal Way to downtown Tacoma. Tote already has an office at the port, and operates twice-weekly container-ship service between Tacoma and Anchorage.

(As an aside, not that we’re going to take credit for this specific move, but Tote’s announcement is perfectly in keeping with an economic-development proposal long promoted in this column, that Tacoma is a logical place for a cluster of maritime, trade and logistics companies, not just their operations but their headquarters as well. This is a good start toward building that concentration.)

The U.S.’s continuing interest in Greenland is as much about geopolitical strategy and security as it is what resources Greenland might contain. Harry Truman wanted it as part of a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The Trump administration is concerned not only about Russia but China establishing a greater presence. Alaska too serves an important role in the grand scheme of national defense.

Should the Danes ever decide to unload Greenland, the direct impact on this part of the world is likely to be muted, what with it being in the North Atlantic and all. But even the floating of a supposedly far-fetched proposal does raise some interesting speculation about other deals the U.S. could make.

In the corporate world businesses are constantly reevaluating their holdings and locations, deciding which to keep and invest in, and which make sense as part of some other country’s real-estate assets. Nations do deals less frequently, but they do them, the U.S. included. This country has let go of a few properties – the Philippines, for example, and the canal zone in Panama.

So if there’s a chunk of real estate that makes sense as a fixer-upper, as a speculative investment for future development, or as an attractive, well-maintained property, how will you know if it’s available if you don’t ask? Perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to revive an old idea, maybe slip it casually into conversation: “Hey Canada, if you ever want to unload B.C. or Alberta to raise some quick cash, here’s our card, give us a call.”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at