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11/16/2003

Seattle growing bitter toward Boeing

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — James Adams was a die-hard Boeing backer from the moment he saw B-17s during World War II. The Washington resident would promote Boeing jets to anyone who would listen, and even picked airlines based on whether they flew Boeing jets. But Adams’ loyalty has been tested over the past few years. Boeing, he said, has stopped backing Washington. It moved its headquarters in 2001 to Chicago. It has laid off tens of thousands of workers. And now, as Boeing looks elsewhere to build its proposed new 7E7 jet, weighing tax incentives and other perks proffered by competing states, Adams and others disenchanted in this Boeing Co. town are becoming Boeing Co. critics. “I think it’s a tragedy that Boeing has turned its back on a state that has essentially supported Boeing from the very, very beginning,” said Adams, who has never worked for Boeing. “If you can’t be an honest-to-God taxpaying business, then I have no more tolerance for them at all.” Small business owners, flight attendants, even former Boeing employees who once pledged their loyalty have joined the ranks of the disgruntled. Their anger has come out in letters to local newspapers and e-mails to Boeing directly, objecting to the prospect that Seattle, long a part of Boeing’s past and present, may not play a part in its future. “What we’re bidding for now is the prestige of building the 7E7,” said Ray Freeman III, a Seattle architect whose father worked for Boeing nearly all his life. “Now we’re going to pay to retain our status as Boeing’s loyal children and, no, I just don’t see it.” Boeing is aware of some residents’ feelings of betrayal, spokesman Peter Conte said. But its decisions have been for legitimate business and strategic reasons, not in a desire to break from Washington, he said. Boeing moved its headquarters to be more accessible by all its major divisions, including the St. Louis-based defense operations it inherited in its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, Conte said. The move also gave each unit more autonomy, by not having the headquarters looming over any one unit, he added. The economy has largely dictated the massive layoffs over the past two years, he said. Boeing may not return to its previous employment levels because of production gains and the desire to have a stable work force rather than big upward and downward swings, Conte said. Picking a site for the 7E7 plant is part of Boeing’s overall plan to build the plane as cost-efficiently as possible, Conte said. Boeing, founded in Seattle in 1916, builds all but one of its commercial jets in Washington state. With the proposed 7E7 — a midsize, fuel-efficient jet to enter service in 2008 — Boeing launched a nationwide contest. Competing states are reportedly offering tax incentives and other perks in bids to land one of the few major economic development projects in years. Boeing has long complained about the lack of competitiveness of Washington state, from its unemployment tax structure to the traffic jams that add time and costs to moving parts in and around Boeing’s factories. And Boeing still seethes over $47 million in transportation mitigation funds that the city of Everett forced the company to pay when Boeing expanded its Everett factory for the 777 jet program. By contrast, Toulouse, France-based Airbus, Boeing’s biggest competitor, receives government assistance in transportation and infrastructure, Conte said. To be sure, Boeing still has plenty of backers among residents and Washington state’s political and community leadership. Boeing’s 7E7 site-selection contest, which it expects to decide later this year, has galvanized Washington state legislators.