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Commentary
6/26/2007
05:59 PM
Richard Martin
Richard Martin
Commentary
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Gates' Legacy Also Transforms A City

After reading the articles on Bill Gates' legacy by my colleagues John Foley and John Soat, I have to add an aspect that they left out: the profound reshaping of Seattle that was a direct result of Microsoft's ascendance. Has any individual (well, pair of individuals, since you have to count Paul Allen in this calculation) ever had a more profound effect on a large American city?

After reading the articles on Bill Gates' legacy by my colleagues John Foley and John Soat, I have to add an aspect that they left out: the profound reshaping of Seattle that was a direct result of Microsoft's ascendance. Has any individual (well, pair of individuals, since you have to count Paul Allen in this calculation) ever had a more profound effect on a large American city?It's hard to remember now, but in the mid-'70s, before Allen and Gates moved their fledgling company from Albuquerque to Seattle, the port city was sunk into a recession from which it seemed it would never recover. The plunging fortunes of Boeing, the energy crisis, and a drab and decaying downtown had turned the Emerald City into one of the country's most depressed (and depressing) cities. That was when the infamous billboard went up: "Would the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?"

By the time I got to Seattle in 1994, Gates was an icon and the high-tech powerhouse across Lake Washington, in Redmond, had transformed the place into a center of wealth and culture to rival San Francisco, to the south. Not only were several of the people I met in my first year there "Microsoft millionaires," but I soon joined the MS gravy train myself, contracting for several Microsoft media properties (anyone else remember the expedition Web site Mungo Park?) before joining ABCNews.com, a Seattle- and Manhattan-based joint venture between ABC and Allen's original digital media "studio," Starwave.

A lot of those media properties went dark (and ABCNews.com eventually shuttered its Seattle newsroom), but the Microsoft effect continues to ripple through the city and the Puget Sound region. Thanks largely to Microsoft millionaires who retired young, Seattle has arguably the most vibrant arts and culture scene of any city of its size in America. Philanthropic institutions continue to enjoy the overflow from Microsoft's stock run-up. The Microsoft boom, along with the associated peripheral startups that perennially blossom and wither around the Sound, attracts a constant inflow of talented émigrés, particularly from South Asia, who add to the heady cultural brew of the place. Starbucks was not a direct result of Gates' business savvy, but it's safe to say that the caffeine addiction of countless 1980s software developers helped fuel the Seattle-based latte-maker's early growth.

And the real estate market in Seattle, led by the lakeside mansions that Microsoft wealth helped build, continues to flourish in the face of the nationwide housing slump.

I left Seattle reluctantly in 2000, partly because my wife couldn't take the climate. Now, if the Gates Foundation could just do something about the weather…

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