Silicon Cities
One of Seattle’s secrets to economic success? Global trade
Takara Small | May 26, 2016

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Seattle is a city on the rise—and not just on a national level.

Home to a budding startup scene as well as several Fortune 500 companies (think Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft), Seattle’s economic growth has been accelerated in recent years by a concerted effort to expand its global footprint. As a result, the Jet City or Emerald City, as its commonly known, is now the fourth largest export market in the U.S., according to the International Trade Administration (ITA), a promotional trade arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Businesses in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area exported merchandise totaling $61.9 billion in 2014, the last year for which data is available. “It’s up $5.3 billion (9.3 percent) from the $56.7 billion in merchandise exported in 2013,” says Diane Mooney, director of the U.S. Commercial Service Seattle office. “The Seattle metropolitan area accounted for 77.5 percent of Washington’s merchandise exports in 2014.”

Gary Gieser, vice-president of sales at a local cargo transporter company called MacMillan-Piper, isn’t surprised by Seattle’s growing presence in the trade market. His company—which launched 46 years ago and has approximately 200 employees—has continued to grow over the last five years as the market for exports and imports steadily improved.

“We’ve had steady growth—except for the recession years of ‘07 and ’08—every year,” he says. “Many of our customers have been with us for a long time.”

MacMillan-Piper’s enduring success is partly due to the strong mix of local and international clients the city attracts, he says. “As Asia grows we grow with it,” he explains. “There’s a lot of business expansion in the area and because of better business development, connections and partnerships with other countries, we have really good years.”

Seattle’s strong trade numbers and robust relations with international countries, especially China, are no accident, says Joe Mirabella, director of communications for the city’s office of economic development. The mayor’s office has long courted businesses in Asian economies because of the role Seattle officials knew it would play in future trade, he explains.

Related: Learn more about Seattle’s culture of innovation in our Innovation That Matters report

“Mayor Ed Murray has dedicated staff to foster our relationships with the international community,” he says. “In fact, Seattle was the first U.S. port to port a ship from China in 1979. Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia are also strong trading partners because of our strong ties to Asia.”

Seattle’s work cultivating its relationships across the Pacific is now paying dividends. Exports to China increased to $12.759 billion in 2014, up from the $5.227 billion recorded in 2010. It’s also now the city’s number one export market, followed by Japan at $4.5 billion annually and Canada at $4.4 billion, ITA found.

Seattle’s trade-infused growth comes at a time when the country is mired in a heated debate about the economic impact of international trade and investment. The Emerald City represents a telling example of how expanding trade can revitalize local economies across the U.S. by helping American businesses find new customers abroad.

“The economic impact is huge,” Mirabella says. “Statewide, approximately 40 percent of jobs are related to trade. Exports impact every aspect of our lives, from revenue that helps build our infrastructure, to the ability to put food on our family’s table, and to the rich cultural experiences a city like Seattle attracts because of our strong economy.”

It’s not just Seattle’s exporters that benefit. The city’s increased trade with Asian countries is having a rippling effect throughout the regional economy. For example, starting in September China’s Xiamen Airlines will begin non-stop service from Seattle to Shenzhen, China—a development linked to growing ties between both countries. The eastern Chinese city is a thriving manufacturing hub located near Pearl River and often billed as the “world’s electronics manufacturing capital.”

Meanwhile, China Vanke—one of the country’s largest residential developers—announced plans to partner with Walnut Creek, a California-based Laconia Development to help build a $200 million high-rise apartment in Seattle. And Chinese smartphone company Huawei recently opened a research and development office in Seattle to take advantage of the area’s growing influence.

The future looks bright for Seattle and the surrounding area if officials and residents can keep pushing forward with trade innovation and strengthen its offerings, the U.S. Commercial Service’s Mooney says.

“The region is high-tech, innovative and diverse… which means the population is largely aware of trade and trade impacts,” she says. “Diversity is the key to the region’s success.”