Managing High-Tech Growth in King County

Ron Sims
Ron Sims King County Executive, King County, Washington

June 1, 2000

Balancing land use policies with an exploding high-tech industry—computer, telecommunications, Internet, and biotechnology—keeps King County, Washington, walking a growth management tightrope as local government works to control new development while keeping our area’s outstanding quality of life.

King County, the nation’s 13th most populous county, is home to Seattle and 38 other cities, as well as to more than 1.6 million people and 1.1 million jobs.

The county is in the midst of an economic boom that created almost 175,000 new jobs between 1990 and 1998, while the population grew by 158,500. In response, King County and its cities instituted countywide planning policies that direct new development into 13 designated urban centers, all well supplied with infrastructure capacity. The countywide policies, based on Washington state’s 1990 Growth Management Act, use both government investment and land more efficiently, preserving more rural areas and preventing sprawl.

The policies work in harmony with market forces. Firms in similar industries tend to locate close to each other (to enjoy what economists call agglomeration economies), so that new employment in those industries is highly concentrated in a few locations. From 1990 to 1998, eight of every ten new jobs in the county were either in Seattle or in the Eastside cities of Bellevue, Bothell, Issaquah, Kirkland, and Redmond. High-tech employment (mostly in biotech and computer-related firms) has especially been bunched together. Almost 75 percent of regional high-tech growth between 1995 and 1998 was in Seattle and the Eastside cities. Last year, the software industry employed 24,300 people in the state, with 97 percent of them in King County. Some 600 former Microsoft employees have started their own companies, while 2,400 computer or software firms have sprung up, creating 16,000 new jobs.

Redmond, home of Microsoft, has the county’s largest concentration of high-tech firms. Nearby, Bellevue and Kirkland have also been centers of high-tech growth. Microsoft’s headquarters has attracted many new computer hardware and software companies to the area. Some 120 Microsoft spin-offs have also located close to the Redmond campus. These new firms, suppliers of high-tech goods and services, and a highly skilled labor pool attract even more businesses to be part of the synergy fostered by a critical mass of similar businesses. The availability of research facilities and venture capital, along with proximity to customers and to the residences of corporate officers, are other reasons for clustering. Eastside cities also offer upscale housing and shops for the relatively well-paid high-tech employees.

Seattle has been a similar draw for the biotechnology industry, including such companies as Zymogenetics and Immunex, which is developing its new headquarters and research facility there. The presence of the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle gives biotech firms the skilled researchers and research labs they need to compete.

Recently many Internet and high-tech companies such as Real Networks, Go2net, and Visio Corporation have also begun to move to downtown Seattle, attracted by the redevelopment of buildings to suit high-tech needs. New housing, restaurants, and retail shops in the downtown core; cultural and recreational opportunities such as the new art museum, the new symphony hall, and the new baseball stadium; a revitalized Seattle Center; and vibrant and expanding waterfront commerce and activities also draw these new companies.