Two leading business executives with a large and growing footprint in the Eastside today highlighted the need for businesses, governments, nonprofits and communities to work together to plan and solve major problems such as affordable housing and transportation to keep pace with the region’s explosive growth.
Amazon vice president of public policy Brian Huseman urged state lawmakers to convene a special session in November to adopt a transportation investment program. And Microsoft President Brad Smith urged the region not to back down from big goals like a bullet train between Vancouver, B.C. and Portland, to help grow and provide opportunities beyond the big one. Seattle.
Huseman and Smith gave speeches on day one of the two-day Eastside Leadership Virtual Conference produced by the Bellevue Chamber. Their talks concluded virtual breakout sessions with various local leaders on innovation in retail, tourism and hospitality, demographics and the future of learning.
Amazon, which currently has around 4,000 employees at Bellevue but plans to have around 25,000 in the next few years (including some in Redmond), is trying to reduce stress related to transportation. He placed two office towers he is building in downtown Bellevue near the new East Link light rail station, pledged $ 7.5 million to fill a funding gap for a key Bellevue segment of the Eastrail bike and pedestrian path, and provides other incentives for employees not to drive. job.
But representatives of the multinational conglomerate know that more needs to be done for transit.
“The arrival of 25,000 employees would have an impact on any community and we are working hard to ensure that this growth is responsible, sustainable and positive for the whole community,” said Huseman, describing some of the work of ‘Amazon with local governments to do its part. .
“We also encourage state and federal decision makers to do theirs and help Bellevue in this growth,” he added. “We have been active in Olympia working on a public transport program, and we encourage lawmakers to come together again for a special session and adopt a balanced transport investment program so they can finish the job. , not just for Eastrail, but for all of Bellevue, the Eastside and all of Washington state.
More affordable housing is also essential, Huseman said. He described Amazon’s work nationwide, including its home equity fund to provide more than $ 2 billion in below-market loans and grants to preserve and create more than 20,000 affordable housing for low to moderate income people in its headquarters communities of Puget Sound. , Arlington, Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee. This so far includes $ 185 million to preserve 1,000 affordable units in King County.
Amazon has also committed $ 100 million to Sound Transit to build approximately 1,200 affordable housing units along streetcar lines.
“But we’re just getting started,” said Huseman. “We call on local and federal authorities to provide new tools for affordable housing, preservation and production here in Bellevue and across the country.”
Huseman called for more housing investment, both for market rate properties and affordable housing, to support future growth.
“We also need changes in land use to spur this housing development and call on state, county and local policy makers to take action to make this happen,” he said. .
Microsoft has also looked into the issue of housing affordability in the region, first committing $ 500 million and then increasing that number to $ 750 million, Smith said, noting that the company has helped to build 8,000 units so far and has helped develop different financing approaches to stimulate the market.
“I feel good about what we’ve done and I feel good about what Amazon has done,” Smith said. “I feel like we are moving forward, but we always run the risk as a region of falling even further behind because we are trying to keep pace with explosive growth.”
Businesses and governments are in the same boat, Smith said.
“City councils, frankly, will be bigger than Microsoft and Amazon and all the other companies,” he said, encouraged by efforts like Bellevue’s recent multi-family housing initiatives.
Keeping pace with the pace, but also protecting what makes the Eastside special is important for housing and transportation, he said, encouraging more face-to-face communication in 2022 between interested parties to understand each other. and work together to solve problems. It’s important not to be too shy about the goals, he said, noting the success of large projects that once seemed intimidating, like building the State Route 520 Bridge and replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.
“We still think as a company that we should identify some really big goals,” Smith said.
The Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high-speed train is one such train, he said.
“It’s not just about unifying and creating more opportunities in this larger economy,” he said. “This will spread the growth. This will create jobs in Everett, Bellingham and Anacortes and give people the ability to travel back and forth which will also help us solve the affordable housing problem in our neighborhood. “
Smith added, “People hear that and they’re like ‘Oh my God we could never do that’ and I’m like ‘Why not?’ The Dutch are doing it, the Swedes are doing it, the Chinese are doing it, the Northeast Corridor is doing it. The northwest of this country can do that too.
Amazon’s Huseman also sees an opportunity at Bellevue College. He noted that it offers a bachelor’s degree in computer science, which inspired Amazon to help advocate for a new state law for all community colleges in the state to offer a four-year computer science degree.
“This brings highly demanded degrees to students in need and increases access and equity, especially for low-income students and students of color,” Huseman said. “We need to expand this pipeline and help make Bellevue College the incubator for local talent in the Eastside.”
What better place to get a computer science degree than in the backyard of Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, T-Mobile and other tech companies, he said, adding that jobs would be available for graduates .
Finally, Huseman said, “We have to keep Bellevue as a great place to do business. Bellevue’s success is due in large part to its collaborative approach with the business community to tackle issues together. Not all cities do. There are cities in our region, including one nearby, which prefer to score political points to the detriment of the business world rather than wanting to work to find creative solutions together, but not in Bellevue, ”he said. , calling the city a model of governance.
Microsoft’s Smith said the Eastside looks a lot like the Wisconsin he grew up in, when two-party politics were the norm. Maintaining this is essential, he said.
“I think the way you preserve it and protect it is to always seek common ground,” Smith said. “I think we’d be so much better off doing four little things than arguing all year round about one big thing that we can’t agree on. And if we can do four things this year, we can do four things next year, and we do it every year and in ten years we will make more progress than we can imagine. But it starts and ends with this cohesion as a business community, with political leaders, with nonprofit leaders, with the public at large, so we bring everyone in. Let us cherish what we have and make sure we develop it.