News & Views

A Tale of Three Cities: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Seattle, Toronto and Columbus

Development Counsellors International (DCI) joined forces with the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) and leaders from Seattle, Washington; Toronto, Ontario; and Columbus, Ohio, on March 26 to discuss the immediate and future implications of COVID-19 to economic development. The economic development leaders provided insights on steps they are taking to support businesses and local workforces, shared best practices from their experience managing past crises (Toronto and the 2003 SARS outbreak) and how they anticipate their regions recovering from the COVID-19 crisis.

The panel included Kenny McDonald, president & CEO of One Columbus, and chair of IEDC’s board of directors; Brian McGowan, CEO of Greater Seattle Partners; and Mike Williams, general manager of the City of Toronto. It was moderated by Julie Curtin, president of DCI, and facilitated by  Jeff Finkle, president & CEO of IEDC.

Seattle, Washington

“Our first priority is on health and safety, the second is economic mitigation and the third is economic recovery. We are working on mitigation efforts now,” said McGowan.

Given that Greater Seattle was the first North American city to be hit by COVID-19, the region acted boldly, early and without mandates. Social distancing regulations were bolstered by a PSA campaign (largely funded by local companies donating their media airtime) that was just one of the many ways McGowan says the public and private sectors came together to help reduce the blow of the virus on the community at large. When King County announced that public employees would begin to telework, the private sector followed suit. Amazon and other large companies have been doing what they can to help small businesses located near their headquarters, banks are offering no/low interest loans and The Gates Foundation is working with partners on the innovation and development of test kits to help the entire world – not just the Greater Seattle Region.

Almost a million jobs are at risk in the Greater Seattle region. While companies like Boeing are shutting down operations, McGowan highlighted how Amazon is hiring 100,000 people nationally and pointed to examples of companies specializing in cloud computing, gaming and computer services that are continuing to do well in the economic downturn.

“Last year, we were the fastest growing economy in the U.S. – diversity [in the Greater Seattle region] will pull us out of this,” said McGowan.


Toronto, Ontario

Perhaps one of the more underrated major metros in the northern hemisphere, Toronto is in fact the 4th largest municipality in North America and, much like Seattle, one of the most diverse and fastest growing. While health services, logistics, delivery operations, and of course – grocery stores are all still doing business, Toronto’s hospitality industry and film & television industries have unfortunately halted. The unemployment rate went from below 6% to 12% in the short span of time since COVID-19 hit the city. In contrast to the United States, the city of Toronto is unable to lend or give money to the private sector, therefore is unable to provide incentives. Efforts are instead being focused on playing a big role in the dissemination of information.

“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on creating a digital Main Street, getting all of the businesses up on the web because this will change consumer habits for good,” said Williams.

When comparing Toronto’s recovery from COVID-19 to the city’s recovery from the SARS outbreak in 2003, Williams emphasized that recovery from COVID-19 will be different. The Toronto hotel industry suffered negative consequences from price discounting after SARS and is hesitant, with some already refusing to provide deep promotions again. One of the biggest lessons that Williams took away from the SARS crisis was not to waste time and marketing efforts by rushing back to the market to start recovery promotion efforts.

“Don’t start too early. We got going quickly when we thought we had an all clear, but there was a second wave of SARS cases,” said Williams. “Many of these pandemics do have a second wave when people start getting out there and there’s another surge. I’d advise places to be very careful.”


Columbus, Ohio

It was only a few weeks ago that officials in the Columbus Region were questioning the cancellation of the popular Arnold Classic Worldwide event. Once COVID-19 cases escalated elsewhere around the country, officials recognized that it was an important decision made on behalf of the community. Ohio has since been one of the leading states to take dramatic actions to close communities and keep people at home to flatten the curve.

“Our role [as economic developers] is more important than ever. We act as a convening place between the business community and the elected officials,” said McDonald.

Honda’s North American manufacturing operations is headquartered in the Columbus Region and is experiencing the impacts seen across the larger U.S. supply chain, while companies like ScriptDrop, a prescription delivery service based in Columbus, has seen accelerated growth since the spread of COVID-19.

On the $2 Trillion Stimulus Bill

Brian McGowan and Kenny McDonald agreed that any assistance is sorely needed. For areas like Greater Seattle, “Resources are tapped and people are hurting. Small business are suffering so any kind of assistance and additional resources are critical,” McGowan stated, adding that he hopes support comes sooner than later.

“Speed is as important as content at this point,” McDonald added emphasizing that those falling in the lower income brackets as well as the homeless population are the most vulnerable and at the highest risk. Organizations in the Columbus region are working closely with elected leaders to help provide and/or speed up any assistance efforts possible.

Jeff Finkle reminded listeners that the tax relief will be going out in early April. According to the small business administration, loans will be given out by lenders; FEMA will be sending money out to reimburse cities for their expenses; and some of the programs like HUD (Housing and Urban Development) may take slightly longer to see assistance come through. Finkle directed viewers to for data and information on what cities, states and communities are doing to address COVID-19.

Economic developers and members of the tourism industry can also find place marketing resources for COVID-19 response and recovery on DCI’s website

“The single best way we can solve the economic challenges is to get the pandemic over with,” Williams reminded listeners at the close of the discussion. “We need to practice good hygiene and social distancing. The most important economic action is actually a public health action.”


Written By

Liz Groeschen

Liz Groeschen is DCI’s Senior Manager of Content and Social Media. Since joining DCI in 2019, Liz has strategized and overseen content for a diverse set of clients, including the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, Baton Rouge Film Collective, and Great Falls Development Authority.

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