A Tale of Two Towers

Journalist Sam Howe Verhovek looks at development—or the lack thereof—in two very different places.

Tale of Towers - Space Needle and Satsop
Illustration by Hum Creative

 

If you’re living anywhere within sight of the Space Needle these days, chances are you’re complaining about growth, traffic, the Invasion of the Amazonians and the insane pace of construction in the Pacific Northwest’s flagship city.

One interesting data point or perhaps let’s call it an un-data point about this rampant development in the Emerald City: When my son Gordie and his girlfriend Emma were shopping around for an apartment recently (staggering a bit from the sticker shock), the energetic real estate agent showing off the digs in a Capitol Hill building beckoned the couple to gaze out the window at our ever-elevating skyline.

“You want to know a really cool statistic?” the eager salesman asked. “There are more construction cranes right now in Seattle than in any other city in the world except Dubai!”

Fascinating, albeit patently, utterly, demonstrably, ridiculously untrue. I know: I checked it out with the editor-in-chief of the London-based Cranes Today magazine, Will North. He told me: “I’d be really surprised if it’s got even a tenth as many cranes up as say, Shanghai or Mumbai, or any of the hundreds of new or growing cities around the world.” (For good measure, North added that while no one, not even he, knows for sure which city has the most cranes, all available data “suggests a district of Doha first, and then a city in China I’d never heard of.”)

Gordie and Emma’s anecdote sticks in my mind not just because it’s funny, but because it has the perfect ring of what comedian Stephen Colbert famously calls “truthiness.” It turns out not remotely to be true that we lead all non-Emir-controlled cities in the great international construction crane arms race. But, damn it, it sure feels true!

So that’s what’s going on in Seattle. But the next time you find yourself kvetching about giant cranes that block the view of the iconic Needle, just pause for a moment and consider what it’s like to be living in a small rural town within sight of the hulking concrete towers of the never-opened Satsop Nuclear Plant.

Satsop is an emblem of our state’s infamous “Whoops” debacle, a truly epic fail in the history of public utilities. Astonishingly, the Washington Public Power Supply System, the agency with the perfectly apt nickname creatively, if sardonically, derived from its acronym, managed to default on $2.25 billion worth of municipal bonds and leave behind four unfinished massive power projects that never produced so much as a single volt of electricity.

Two of WPPSS’s ghostly nuclear non-reactors loom over the small towns of Elma and Satsop, roughly halfway between Olympia and the Pacific coast in Grays Harbor County. They symbolize economic stagnation and woe just as surely as the Space Needle evokes boomtown Seattle.

Visiting what is now optimistically called the “Satsop Business Park,” on the grounds of the nuke plant that never fired up, I found it hard not to contend with a sort of cognitive dissonance about the whole enterprise.

It’s an undeniably spooky place, the huge ghostly concrete towers never out of sight, the bright “Where to Grow” brochure for the place boasting of fiber, phone, water and sanitary sewer systems “sized for a workforce of 5,000 people.” The current actual number of people working there falls a bit short of that target: Local officials say it provides somewhere between 60 and 80 jobs.

And yet I was somehow taken by the optimism, or at least the perseverance, that nonetheless pervades the place and has so for years – the game attempts by local governments to “market their nuclear lemon as job-creating lemonade,” as reporter Jessica Kowal put it in The New York Times nearly a decade ago.

Back then, the big idea was all high tech: A nuclear power plant is nothing if not secure, in theory anyway, so the local public development authority was energetically pitching all the major software manufacturers and dot-coms as the perfect spot for call centers, data servers and other back-office operations.

That never quite panned out, and the authority itself basically went kaput amid much recrimination. More recently, the business park has been taken over by the Port of Grays Harbor, a public agency that is promoting the place more as an ideal locale for heavy industry as well as emergency operations for companies and governments that might be struck by terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis and any other manner of man-made or natural disaster.

Also, given that no local agency has anywhere near the amount of dough needed to implode the unlovely, three-foot-thick, six-story-high towers, the Port has instead gamely marketed a giant eyesore as a fantastic beacon for the motion picture industry.

“Picture this, a single filming location that offers not one, but two unused nuclear towers, acres of natural evergreen forests, a campus like business park and office space for production crew activities−picture Satsop Business Park as the new Hollywood sweetheart,” another Port brochure notes, describing the plant as a “truly unique visual asset.” It also emphasizes the not inconsiderable benefit of getting realistic life-size nuclear reactors for your film backdrop without any pesky worry about actual radioactivity. There never has been any such thing there, since the plant never actually operated.

Happily, if a tad jarringly, that pitch has worked! The movie Transformers: Age of Extinction had scenes filmed at Satsop, as did a haunting short Japanese film about the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A video game manufacturer also paid to use Satsop’s nukes as part of a series.

 

Interestingly, while a visitor cannot help but have his eyes drawn to the giant towers perched on the hill, to many people in town they seem to have become all but invisible.

“Oh, I haven’t been up there in years,” said Debora Simpson, 56, a retired mill worker in Elma, with a hearty laugh. “I heard at one point they were going to open a little restaurant up there, but I don’t think it ever happened.”

Since Grays Harbor County is routinely plagued by some of the highest unemployment rates in the state (10.8 percent in the most recent monthly count, compared to 6.8 percent statewide and 4.9 percent in King County), local residents say they would love to see the business park take off.

Few expect it to work out that way, so if you’re a Seattleite complaining about growth and congestion, just remember that if you happened to be a Satsopite, barely two hours away, you would have almost precisely the opposite lament. You would be thinking that you should be so lucky as to have the hassles generated by the kinds of well-paying, tax base-enhancing jobs that companies like Amazon or Microsoft bring to a not-always-grateful public in Seattle.

One state, two communities and two very different sets of problems. Seattle complains; Satsop hopes.

“There is optimism,” Kayla Dunlap, a Grays Harbor Port spokesperson, says of what is now the eerily empty business park. “We have a good story to tell. We think there are good things to come. Someday, we think, this will be providing a lot of jobs for a lot of people in Grays Harbor County.”

 

  • Sam Howe Verhovek

    Sam Howe Verhovek, a former national reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, is the author of Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World.

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