Opinion

Could Seattle put on a world’s fair today? | Don C. Brunell

By Don C. Brunell

On April 21, 1962, the Seattle World’s Fair opened. The “Century 21 Exhibition” ran for six months, drew 11 million visitors, turned a profit and left the Northwest with a wonderful Seattle Center.

A half century later, many of the fair’s landmarks remain, and the Center’s 73-acres is a gathering place for people from all walks of life. It is Seattle’s Central Park.

The Space Needle has become Seattle’s landmark. Conceived in an architect’s notebook, it was constructed in eight months at a cost of roughly $3 million in private funds.

You have to wonder if a project of this scope and magnitude could happen today with endless hoops to jump through and mounds of government red tape.

Back in 1962, people argued about projects — but then they compromised and moved forward. Today, there is endless debate over every detail, and the losers sue. In the end, projects die by litigation, indecision and delay. Meanwhile, costs skyrocket and projects become too expensive. It is like bleeding to death by a thousand cuts.

Every project, large or small, has its opponents. Everyone wants their say and their way. That’s how our system works. But there comes a time when the arguing and delays must end and compromises must be made.

Case in point: the SR 520 bridge, another massive infrastructure project from the 1960s. Gov. Al Rosellini proposed building the floating bridge across Lake Washington just south of the University of Washington campus. It was badly needed because the only other floating bridge across the lake was overcrowded.

Starting in 1963, a 35-cent toll was levied on motorist crossing the new floating bridge. That toll ended in 1979 when the construction bonds were retired. While in hindsight, it would have been better to keep the tolls in place to pay for maintenance, expansion and improvements; the compromise was reached, and the bridge was built.

Today, the effort to replace that bridge is the perfect example of how times — and the development process — have changed. A bridge replacement is finally under way, but only after years of haggling, legislative wrangling and lawsuits.

No project can garner 100 percent support — there will always be proponents and opponents. Even the world’s fair had its detractors. But in the end, the 1962 World’s Fair was a huge success and put Seattle on the map. The 1974 Spokane World’s Fair did the same and revitalized that city’s downtown. Both happened because visionaries like Eddie Carlson and Joe Gandy in Seattle and Luke Williams in Spokane weathered the storm and refused to give up.

In some respects, we’ve become our own worst enemies, allowing the process to interfere with progress. In Vancouver, it’s a fight over a new biomass boiler. Clark County wanted to replace the existing boilers in its courthouse complex with a biomass boiler.

The proposal drew such strong opposition from neighbors and city leaders that the project missed a financing and was canceled. It didn’t matter that the wood waste project was more energy efficient, saved the taxpayers money and reduced overall air pollution levels; it fell victim to the NIMBY syndrome — not in my back yard.

In Skamania County, a fight over the construction of a wind farm erupted into a major lawsuit. Project opponents again used the NIMBY principle, citing an array of issues ranging from scenic and wildlife impacts to mitigation measures such as nighttime lighting on the turbine blades.

The scope of the project was eventually reduced, and the development is now on hold, because the developers say the project is now not economically viable.

We still have visionary people who are smart, innovative and community-minded, but today the cards are stacked against them. Rather than block them at every turn, perhaps we should start clearing a few hurdles so we can make great things happen again, like we did with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

 

By Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business

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