Boeing's contest, Seattle's angst

City's inextricable links with the jetmaker are being tested as firm weighs other production sites.

From the tone of her voice, Mary Van Bronkhorst could well be talking about a dinner guest who failed to show up.

"This feels so rude," she insists. Then, in an unwelcome moment, she remembers. Boeing is not a next-door neighbor that can come over for cookies. No matter if her family was "raised by Boeing," as she says. Or if her father, who worked there for 40 years, says "it's still in my blood."

Boeing is just another big corporation. Like General Motors or John Deere. If Boeing says it wants to seek incentives from different states before it decides where to build its next-generation jetliner, "it's nothing personal," Ms. Van Bronkhorst says.

Now, if she could only say it with conviction.

For much of the past century, the only thing as constant as the gray skies and green moss here in Seattle has been Boeing. So to many, the decision to consider bids from various states to host production of the new 7E7 - which must be submitted by Friday - feels like blackmail.

More likely, it is a fresh taste of a bitter business trend for the Pacific Northwest. Like sports teams playing different cities off against one another for the best stadium deal, big companies are increasingly opening their site selection processes to very public national competitions. And in these competitions, the low-cost, employer-friendly South has been a decisive winner.

For old-line industrial states like Washington, the trend has pushed legislators to pass ever-more extreme incentive packages to compete. For Seattle, though, there is already the air of resignation as one of the longest - and deepest - corporate connections with a community is strained and perhaps ending.

"What we're seeing is the evolution of how business develops," says Dennis Donovan of The Wadley-Donovan Group, a consulting firm in Edison, N.J. "These [big-ticket] companies can go just about anywhere."

Indeed, the notion of connecting a company with any one ZIP Code is fast becoming an anachronism. Hewlett-Packard has scores of facilities far from Silicon Valley, and now many BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes are made in South Carolina and Alabama, respectively.

But to some here, Boeing had always been as Seattle as the Space Needle. For decades, swarms of vehicles buzzed about town with the bumper sticker: "If it's not Boeing, I'm not going." Seattle native Sunny Speidel remembers grade-school teachers who would ask which students' parents worked for Boeing. "And two-thirds of the class would stand up," she grins.

During the 1960s, in fact, roughly 1 of 10 residents in King County - which includes Seattle - worked at Boeing. For Van Bronkhorst, it was a time when more than just paychecks and planes were produced. "The people who worked for [Boeing] gave [it] their energy, their, creativity, their loyalty, their lives," she says, considering each word. "So from the perspective of those of us who live here, it's more than just an exchange of labor for money. But, from the company's perspective, it's just business."

That is a dawning revelation for some. It began two years ago when the company decided to relocate its headquarters to Chicago. For all the symbolism of that move, though, five of Boeing's six major jetliners were still assembled in Greater Seattle. Now, the fact that Boeing has put the 7E7 Dreamliner plant up for bid has turned many residents from anxiety to disillusionment.

It percolates in street-corner cafes and gurgles from storm drains. Even after the executives' exodus to Chicago, Boeing is still the buzz - and 7E7 is as understood as mocha grande.

"I'm appalled that [Boeing] has abandoned its home, and is leveraging that against the state now," says local entrepreneur Mardig Sheridan, gesticulating forcefully. "It really feels like being held hostage."

Actually, it is simply business as usual nowadays. Auto manufacturers first opened plant site selection to public view with their interstate competitions in the mid-1980s. Today, Boeing claims that the collapse of the airline industry after Sept. 11 and competition from the European Union's heavily subsidized Airbus venture make open interstate competition a must in order to secure the best location and incentives.

"Large corporations with thousands of jobs to offer have a tremendous opportunity to leverage one state against another for the best deal," says Todd Ely, president of the Enterprise Consortium, a corporate-relocation consulting firm in Springfield, Ill.

The Boeing deal will certainly provide that leverage. While Boeing will not disclose the number of states that have submitted bids, media reports point to as many as 17. With 900 to 1,200 jobs paying roughly $65,000, and the promise of thousands of more jobs to support the plant, "this is a project that comes along only once every five or 10 years," says Mr. Donovan. "This is a supermega project."

To some, it is a project that Washington cannot lose. Several state legislators have cast this as a potential last stand for Washington manufacturing. And as more jobs move to the South, where the cost doing business is lower and right-to-work laws mean unions hold little sway, analysts suggest that there might be truth in the lawmakers' dire pronouncements.

"Southern states are working with the trends, not against them," says John Boyd, president of The Boyd Company, a consulting firm in Princeton, N.J. "Washington has a tough sell to keep that industry."

Part of its pitch is $3.2 billion in tax incentives - the largest tax break for an industry in Washington history. But Mr. Boyd adds, "I don't think you can overspend to get that sort of project."

Others aren't so sure - especially in Seattle. With budget shortfalls forcing cuts in education, many residents wonder if one plant is worth so much money. Now spurred by a healthy skepticism of all things Boeing, they suggest that maybe now is the time for Seattle to cut its ties once and for all.

"It's time for people to realize that their well-being is not tied to one big company," says carpenter Steve Ludwig. "If Boeing wants to leave the state, let it leave.... If we stick up for ourselves - and don't gut our social programs to help Boeing - we'll be better off."

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