Pandemic threatens dominance of ‘celebrity’ tech cities, creating new uncertainty for innovation hubs


Downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier as seen from the highest remark deck of the House Needle. (GeekWire Picture / Kurt Schlosser)

The seemingly unstoppable development of tech firms and expertise concentrating in just a few cities hit a brick wall in March. Because the first-known U.S. instances of the coronavirus emerged in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Space, tech firms pioneered a nationwide shift to distant work.

Six months into the pandemic, a few of these firms won’t ever return to the workplace in full drive.

In the meantime, the cities the place tech has pushed inhabitants spikes and surging dwelling costs are confronting sudden funds shortfalls and scrambling to regulate. Seattle and San Francisco — dwelling to the most important and most respected tech firms within the nation — are contemplating new enterprise and wealth taxes to make up for the misplaced income.

Metropolis officers are charging the tech trade with funding restoration efforts, whereas enterprise advocates sound acquainted alarm bells about jobs leaving city.

It’s an previous story with a brand new twist: a world experiment in the advantages and shortfalls of distant work. Might the pandemic actually decentralize tech alternative away from only a few cities? In that case, what does it imply for the way forward for the tech trade in America? Metropolis officers and concrete specialists are watching the development intently, however they’re divided over the implications.

Dying and taxes

Along with infecting almost Four million folks and killing at least 145,000 folks within the US alone, the coronavirus has blown a serious gap within the budgets of cities throughout the nation. In Seattle, the shortfall is estimated to be around $400 million this 12 months. San Francisco is scrambling to plug a $1.7 billion budget deficit over the subsequent two years.

Each cities are contemplating taxes that focus on massive enterprise and rich executives to fill their gaps.

The Seattle Metropolis Council passed legislation earlier this month that taxes the highest salaries on the highest paying firms within the metropolis to fund coronavirus reduction applications instantly and inexpensive housing down the road.

Amazon has been a recurring focus of Seattle’s tax debate. (GeekWire Picture / Monica Nickelsburg)

In San Francisco, voters shall be requested to determine on a number of new taxes this November that have an effect on the tech trade, together with a CEO tax on executives incomes a minimum of 100 instances the median earnings of their common employee. One other proposal would tax stock-based compensation. Adjustments to the town’s payroll and gross receipts taxes are additionally into account.

The enterprise communities in each tech hubs warn the taxes will push out jobs and damage firms already struggling to climate the financial storm introduced on by the pandemic.

Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce vice chairman Mark McIntyre mentioned the payroll tax will “stunt financial restoration, push high-paying jobs out of the town, additional toxify the connection between metropolis authorities” in an announcement.

Leila Kirske, CFO of the medical tech firm 98point6 warned that “so lots of the jobs misplaced is not going to come again.”

“Taxing those who stay is not going to make this group wholesome once more,” she mentioned in an announcement accompanying McIntyre’s, a part of a round-up circulated by Seattle’s “No Tax on Jobs” marketing campaign.

Jennifer Stojkovic, govt director of the tech advocacy group, was extra blunt in her prediction. govt director Jennifer Stojkovic. ( Picture)

“Tech’s going to depart,” she mentioned in an interview with GeekWire. “There’s no means round it. We’re on this unprecedented time the place firms are having enormous downturns, and they’re being hit with new taxes, they usually don’t know if they’re going to have the ability to afford this tax burden. Along with the downturn that they’re dealing with, and these layoffs, and hundreds of jobs which have been misplaced, they’ve all their staff who’ve been working remotely since March, they usually’re doing it.”

Although the pandemic provides a degree of uncertainty that feels unprecedented, this isn’t the primary time the enterprise group has threatened misplaced jobs amid a tax battle — and the analysis paints a extra difficult image than the rhetoric.

Tech follows expertise

Tech trade focus in only a few cities in the end comes right down to expertise. The U.S. has a scarcity of engineers, knowledge analysts, and different data employees wanted to energy the expertise trade. These employees are likely to gravitate towards locations like Seattle or San Francisco, West Coast cities with loads of facilities and like-minded folks. Firms are likely to cluster round these expertise bases and worth the data change that happens when employees bounce between startups and huge tech companies.

The pandemic doesn’t look like considerably altering that underlying development — a minimum of not but.

Zillow in contrast internet site visitors to for-sale listings in city, suburban, and rural areas in April 2019 and April 2020 and noticed no important change.

“The info don’t present any early proof for an total shift in search conduct away from city cores,” Zillow mentioned in its report.

In fact, that was early on within the pandemic, earlier than some firms introduced long-term plans to maintain employees distant.

A survey by Blind of 4,400 Bay Space tech employees discovered about two-thirds would think about transferring if they’d the choice to work remotely, Business Insider reports. However solely 18% mentioned they’d think about transferring out of California.

Some specialists predict a slight deconcentration of tech inside the municipal boundaries of cities like San Francisco and Seattle however don’t count on these jobs to journey removed from the tech hubs the place they have been shaped.  Firms would possibly shift to cities surrounding these metros, like Bellevue, Wash., the place they will nonetheless faucet the expertise pool that gravitates to premier cities. In San Francisco’s case, Stojkovic expects some tech firms and employees to maneuver to the Seattle space, which presents many comparable facilities however a comparatively decrease value of residing.

Richard Florida talking on the 2018 Cascadia Innovation Cooridor Convention in Vancouver, B.C. (Cascadia Innovation Hall Picture / Matt Borck)

Richard Florida, a distinguished urbanist and professor on the College of Toronto, advised GeekWire that he doesn’t count on U.S. tech hubs to decentralize in any important means.

“San Francisco and Seattle shall be simply tremendous,” he mentioned. “I don’t see a large relocation of huge companies or startups wherever exterior of the handful of celebrity metros which have dominated this for the higher a part of 20 years. I feel that distant work is a special story. I feel extra employees within the tech group and elsewhere will work remotely, not all, however I feel extra will. My larger level is, if San Francisco, New York, and Seattle went away you would possibly as properly simply write off America’s excessive tech innovation capability.”

Working from dwelling: The ‘X-factor’

The pandemic is the most recent in a protracted record of catastrophes which have supposedly foretold the dying of cities. For hundreds of years, crises have led to grim forecasts concerning the finish of cities and up to now, no calamity has been extra highly effective than the development of urbanization. Cities have weathered pandemics, hurricanes, bombings, recessions, and depressions earlier than and rebounded every time.

However there’s one issue that makes our present second totally different: distant work. Tech leaders are realizing that many roles will be finished simply as effectively from dwelling, which may permit them to pay decrease salaries in cheaper cities. A College of Chicago report revealed in June estimates 37% of U.S. jobs can be done entirely remotely.

Microsoft and Amazon have been among the many first to shift their tech employees distant when coronavirus instances started rising within the Seattle space. Different tech firms up and down the West Coast shortly adopted go well with. Within the months that adopted, a number of introduced new, everlasting do business from home insurance policies.

Twitter and Sq. will permit staff to do business from home indefinitely, even after the pandemic subsides. Fb expects about 50% of its workforce to be distant within the subsequent 5-10 years. Different firms are giving up their physical offices altogether.

“We’re not in a increase or bust binary anymore,” mentioned Stojkovic of Silicon Valley’s tendency to pendulum swing. “There’s a 3rd possibility and that’s pivoting to distant work. That’s the X-factor that we now have at play and it’ll change all the things. It can change what the trail to restoration seems to be like as a result of some firms won’t ever return.”

Stojkovic talked about rumors that Uber, a member firm of, may relocate its headquarters to Dallas amid the tax battle in San Francisco. However the problem that states like Texas, have had containing the coronavirus may make tech employees much less prone to relocate, based on Florida.

“Who of their proper thoughts would transfer an organization to Texas?” he mentioned. “Texas has proven that it’s incapable of governing itself. Nice, perhaps if Elon Musk needs to place a battery manufacturing facility there, however the crimson states have proven that they’re incapable of offering a secure and wholesome atmosphere for folks. Good luck attracting folks to Texas.”

As a substitute, he predicts firms will arrange smaller, premium headquarters in main tech hubs with distant employees distributed in close by areas. These “high-end boutique” headquarters will proceed to be in superstars cities, Florida mentioned. “The headquarters goes to be like a model enhancement.”

However even when America’s tech hubs stay comparatively concentrated, they aren’t proof against world political and financial forces which might be evolving quickly. An more and more burdensome U.S. immigration system and the nation’s problem containing the coronavirus may push entrepreneurs and engineers who would have moved to American tech hubs to contemplate cities in different international locations, based on Florida.

“The actual concern,” he mentioned, “is that this local weather makes folks not come to U.S. cities in any respect.”


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