This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of 425 Business.
It is safe to say that James Henderson jumped at the chance to apply to become Bellevue’s economic development director. Though he was firmly entrenched as assistant director of economic development in a city 10 times the size and some 2,100 miles away from Bellevue (San Antonio), Henderson had several reasons to want to pack up his family and head to the Northwest; most important was to come home. Henderson was born in Bellevue and graduated from Bellevue High School and the University of Washington.
“I’ve always wanted to return to the Northwest but wanted to be able to make a difference in the community when I returned,” Henderson said. “When this position opened up last fall, I saw it as not only an opportunity to come back to Bellevue, but to also use the skills and experience I have gained over my career to help Bellevue and the region’s economy grow and prosper.”
Henderson won the job and has been Bellevue’s economic development director for a year. As he begins his second year on the job, Henderson took some time to talk with 425 Business about what we can expect from the Eastside’s largest city in 2016 and beyond with regard to foreign investors, the tech industry, and that always-present bugaboo, transportation.
How do you describe the city of Bellevue?
Bellevue has seen phenomenal growth over the past 20-plus years and has been transformed from a suburban community adjacent to Seattle to a rapidly growing innovation and technology hub that is a significant economy in the Puget Sound region. We are a growing innovation center. The technology startup scene in Bellevue is emerging, and the recent announcement of the Global Innovation Exchange in the Spring District will make Bellevue and the region a significant center for technology education and research and development.
Why has the number of jobs in the city grown steadily for the past two decades or so?
Access to talent, particularly in the technology industry, is one of the most important factors a company takes into consideration when they are deciding to relocate or expand. The region as a whole has such a well-educated and talented workforce, (and) I believe that is one of the major reasons we have seen such steady growth. We are likely to see solid growth in the future, as well.
Another big factor is downtown Bellevue. We are able to provide a very unique location for the Eastside that complements our neighbors. Many companies have chosen to move to our downtown because it provides the walkable, energetic environment and strong transportation connections that technology workers and companies want.
How is the city accommodating the area’s increasing number of foreign investors?
Bellevue is home to over 70 international companies, which really shows that we are a globally connected city and part of a major regional economy. In addition, we’ve seen significant international investor interest, particularly from China. Since January 2014, there have been two notable Chinese investments in Bellevue totaling over $200 million. Attracting international companies to Bellevue and positioning ourselves as a Pacific gateway city is an important element of our economic development strategy passed by the City Council in July 2014. We believe the Global Innovation Exchange will bring to Bellevue even more interest by international companies.
How much consideration do you give to regionalism when making decisions for Bellevue?
Regionalism is an important element of our economic development strategy and a big part in our day-to-day work. We routinely work with our economic development partners to support our economic development strategy and program areas. Examples of our partnerships include working with the Washington Interactive Network to provide export opportunities for our interactive media companies and attract foreign direct investment. We partnered with the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County to bring foreign investment to the region and with OneRedmond to provide a Small Business Development Advisor to assist small businesses.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Gross Domestic Product of the Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma region in 2014 was over $300 billion, up from $285 billion in 2013. In 2014, the region was ranked 11th nationally behind metro economies such as San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The region is an economic powerhouse and an important part of the U.S. and global economy.
There are more than 25,000 technology jobs in the city. Is tech the center of Bellevue’s identity?
Technology is very much at the center of Bellevue’s identity. A lot of research and development happens in Bellevue that isn’t publicized, so we’re a bit like the Bruce Wayne of the region. People have a perception of us, but when you find out about the work we’re doing, it’s truly incredible. There’s a reason that the University of Washington chose Bellevue for GIX, and that both REI and Salesforce chose to put development teams here. It’s because there’s already such a strong tech workforce in Bellevue, and tech workers enjoy the environment we provide.
The most under-recognized part of Bellevue’s economy is probably the interactive media sector. That includes video-game developers, virtual-reality technology, and all sorts of interactive tech. Three pillars of the video-game industry are just a couple of blocks from City Hall. That’s a sector we expect to grow substantially over the coming years. We want to respect our companies’ desire to keep a lower profile, so we just promote that we’re a tech hub and let the industry respond with its headcount.
That transportation is a struggle is no secret. How much of an impediment is the issue to business recruitment?
Transportation, especially workforce mobility, is important to attract companies to, and keep existing companies in, Bellevue. East Link will be a big boost to Bellevue’s economy. Not only will it bring the workforce into our major employment centers, but it will also help us retain and attract great companies.
As a city, we’re constantly looking at ways to make our transportation system more efficient and to reduce congestion. One example of that is Bellevue’s system of adaptive traffic signals. It allows traffic signals to adjust to traffic conditions in real time. By the end of 2015, all intersections (nearly 200) will be upgraded. So far, travel times in the upgraded corridors have improved by 15 to 40 percent. Also, just this year, Bellevue launched the Pedestrian and Bicycle Implementation Initiative to help realize the long-term vision for a walkable and bikeable city.
What are your top priorities for the city in 2016?
Our office has three main economic development programs — business attraction, business retention and expansion, and Next Generation Bellevue (the city’s startup-assistance program). We call these programs the three legs of the economic development stool. Ultimately, for the stool to remain balanced, we need to support each program. We plan to maintain our focus on business attraction, particularly in working with our regional partners to attract international companies. We will continue to work with local businesses through our business retention and expansion program to provide them with the resources they need to be successful. And we’ll support Bellevue’s technology startup scene through our Next Generation Bellevue program so we can make Bellevue a great place for tech entrepreneurs to start and grow companies.