Now that the economy has stalled, are the Seattle unemployed here to stay, or are they packing the U-Haul?

When I moved to Washington’s west side, I pursued a different career and landscape. When I was laid off last year, I decided to stay put rather than move where the job market held more promise. I thought I was following my heart, but according to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002), I was following a trend.

Florida, a Carnegie-Mellon economics professor, theorizes that those in “creative” occupations “drive” the economy, i.e., corporate profits and economic growth are highly dependent upon the labor of a variety of workers in inventive occupations. This wide range of 38 million workers includes computer programmers, scientists, professors, artists, designers, architects, and writers. They are society’s “thought leadership,” designing products and ideas that can be applied in many different ways.

Florida also says cities that understand the “creative class” and work to attract them-and companies that hire them-are more likely to thrive economically, because the “creatives” aren’t merely seeking a job and a paycheck. They want a certain quality of life too.

Certainly Seattle has all the qualities Florida believes a city needs to flourish-authenticity, outdoor recreation, diversity, and cutting edge cultural opportunities. Using Florida’s criteria, Seattle ranks fifth behind San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and San Diego.

I wondered whether Florida’s theory has stuck now that the economy has stalled. Are the Seattle unemployed here to stay or are they packing the U-Haul? Are people still moving in despite one of highest unemployment rates in the country?

Brad Augustine ’84, a well-known former Pullman restaurateur turned Seattle real estate developer says, “I don’t see a lot of people leaving Seattle or an exuberant amount of “for sale” signs. People want to be here for the quality of life, so wonderful because of the natural beauty. Living here is pretty unique because of the proximity to water. [In addition,] we have a top-notch museum and symphony hall and the Marion McCaw opera house is under construction.

“Downtown is an urban village, and that’s important. You don’t want a nine-to-five downtown; you want active street life all of the time.”

Still, one can’t ignore the effect of the current recession. According to Dupre & Scott Apartment Advisors, Seattle’s Belltown vacancy rate is an unbelievable 10.1 percent. Augustine acknowledges it’s probably middle management and the average worker feeling the biggest pinch. “Those are the ones most likely to leave.”

Greg Weeks, a ’78 Ph.D. who studied under Lane Rawlins, is now director of Labor Market and Economic Analysis at the Washington State Employment Security Department. Says Weeks, “I think a lot of people that had trouble because of the tech wreck have moved to other locations. There are some high-tech centers still doing well like Austin and the research triangle in North Carolina (Raleigh-Durham ranked no. 6 in Florida’s study). We’ve heard a lot of anecdotal information indicating displaced Seattle residents have moved on, but we don’t have good data to track people as they’re laid off and move from state to state.

“However, healthcare is booming, and Microsoft never really had a slow down. The finance industry and real estate have tended to stay stable.”

Augustine and Weeks both believe Seattle will hold its own. Augustine, a fifth-generation Seattleite, remembers a catch phrase from the early 70s, the only time in the last 40 years net migration was negative for longer than one year: “Would the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?” He notes, “Seattle is in a different position this time around. This is a little different economic arena. “We are not the small city we used to be.”