Back in Business

A consortium of cities works to improve economic development efforts in Washington.

by / December 2, 2004
The cost of doing business in Washington caused Boeing, a company based in the state for more than 80 years, to threaten to build a major new airliner production facility elsewhere to remain competitive. Some quick maneuvering by the state to stave off the potential move resulted in an economic incentive package that convinced Boeing to stay.

Washington's struggle to retain existing businesses and attract new ones recently caused the state to increase economic competitiveness efforts. NWProperty.net, a multicity economic development portal for the Puget Sound region, is one of the latest attempts to enhance the state's appeal to businesses.

The eCityGov Alliance, a multijurisdictional effort to improve access to government services in Washington, runs the NWProperty.net portal. The site launched in June 2004 to provide local jurisdictions, real estate and user focus groups with an easy-to-use regional Internet tool.

Its main feature is a comprehensive listing of commercial property for sale and lease provided by the Commercial Brokers Association. That information is combined with demographic, assessment and business data, and GIS-structured public data organized by participating jurisdictions.

Regional officials hope national site selection firms and corporate real estate departments will use NWProperty.net to recommend locations to business clients, and that local businesses will use it to find expansion space in their communities, locate competitors or find businesses with which to ally themselves.

It is also hoped site users will call up household income data, local and regional work force characteristics, and other information pertinent to locating property, and preparing business and marketing plans.


Bellevue Beginnings
NWProperty.net got its start in Bellevue, Wash.

"With the economic downturn and the dot-com bust, Bellevue was faced with high property vacancy rates, which translated to lower tax revenues," said John Backman, executive director of eCityGov Alliance. "At the same time, the marketplace was seeing economic tools emerge based on GIS and commercial property data. The city thought combining these things might be a good opportunity to improve their economic competitiveness."

City officials realized the idea wouldn't take off unless they got their hands on up-to-date commercial property data, but Bellevue lacked staff and resources to gather the information. After talking to the Kirkland, Wash.-based Commercial Brokers Association, city officials secured the association's commitment to provide commercial property data.

"We don't want to enter sale and lease information into yet another Web site," said Toni Cramer, co-chair of the eCityGov Alliance and CIO for the city of Bellevue. "We partnered with the Commercial Brokers Association to use existing data already created and maintained by realtors, developers and brokers."

The next step was talking to potential site users, which resulted in the formation of brokers' focus groups. After working with those groups, Bellevue officials realized brokers didn't have time to jump from one jurisdiction Web site to another looking for properties. The city would better serve users by making the site work on a regional basis.

City officials took their idea to the eCityGov Alliance, which liked it enough to purchase NWProperty.net from Bellevue and began working to expand it to a regional system.

The alliance purchased the NWProperty.net application, including the underlying code, and bought the server hardware and server software licenses required to operate NWProperty.net. The alliance project team selected and purchased the NWProperty.net URL after the alliance agreed to purchase the application.

Thirteen Washington cities use NWProperty.net for economic development: Auburn, Bellevue, Bothell, Issaquah, Kenmore, Kent, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Redmond, Sammamish, SeaTac, Snoqualmie and Woodinville.

"The city views NWProperty.net as an important economic development tool," said Cramer. "It allows anyone, anywhere, at any time to look for commercial properties for sale or lease in any of the participating cities. Users find it easy to use and terribly convenient to search from one Web site, instead of jumping from one individual city Web site to the next."


If You Can't Beat Them ...
Though NWProperty.net can clearly help the Puget Sound region compete with other regions, some worry that participating cities will ultimately compete against one another to attract businesses.

"We stress that we're not competing with ourselves; we're competing with other geographical centers, other states," said Backman. "When a business looks at NWProperty.net, they are getting a view of us as a region -- not as individual cities. In addition, every city has its own niche -- where suppliers are located, educational attainment in the area, etc. This gives businesses a better chance at finding exactly what they want and need while simultaneously improving the overall strength of the state -- something that is ultimately important to all our cities."

Craig Ward, assistant city manager of SeaTac, Wash., said NWProperty.net gave his city a more affordable option for economic development efforts.

"Before NWProperty.net came along, we were actively considering the services of a private vendor," he said. "In checking references of private vendors, we became aware of NWProperty.net. We contacted them and found out it would be a significant cost savings compared to the private vendor and would provide us with more flexibility. We decided the cost savings were worth the risks of engaging in this new venture."


A Unique Alliance
The eCityGov Alliance was formed in 2002 out of two different collaborative projects.

Building officials from Bellevue, Kirkland, Issaquah and Mercer Island collaborated for several years to align business objectives, code administration practices and philosophy to provide more consistent, uniform service delivery to customers.

At the same time, a group of city officials in the King County area were considering a collaborative project to provide online services to reduce operating costs.

Both efforts came together, evolving into the eCityGov Alliance.

Before NWProperty.net, the alliance successfully implemented a regional e-permitting application called MyBuildingPermit.com and is now working on an equivalent service for regionwide recreation class registrations to be called MyParksandRecration.com.

The alliance continues looking for opportunities to reduce costs and improve service delivery. In some cases, an individual agency brings an application to the alliance and offers to share it; in others, the alliance develops its own application or purchases an existing application. The alliance also works on interagency coordination for data sharing and structure (GIS data and addresses) to improve data sets and lower members' operating costs.

Though it's too early to tie any direct economic improvements to NWProperty.net, Ward said the site already has produced some additional advantages for SeaTac. City employees are often asked to track down lists of available properties for developers and conduct research to help developers assess the city's suitability to their clients. "This gives us a mechanism to respond to those requests quickly, saves our staff time and provides us a capacity we didn't have before," he said.

Because the GIS application allows prospective companies and brokers to search for data such as steep slopes, wetlands and environment protections affecting a potential property, a good amount of due diligence can be done electronically, saving time for those in search of property.

"The more information we provide and the easier we make it to access and use, the better our chances of improving our attractiveness to new and relocating businesses," said Ward. "We may not be the cheapest state in which to do business, but we offer many other benefits and a quality of life you can't find in other places."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer