‘Turn out the lights’: Remembering the Boeing bust billboard
The recent moves by Boeing to explore locations other than the Pacific Northwest for manufacturing the 777X jetliner have stirred up painful memories of the region’s long and sometimes troubled relationship with the once-hometown aerospace giant.
Boeing has been responsible for bringing incalculable economic benefit to this region and for creating some of our proudest moments, from the B-17s and B-29s designed and built in Seattle and Renton that helped win World War II, to the game-changing introduction of the 707 jetliner (and that
Dash 80 barrel roll at Seafair), to the creation of the iconic 747, to countless contributions to American defense and the space race.
But Boeing has also made moves that have angered and saddened the locals (including many who don’t even work there) who perhaps feel a bit too possessive of this for-profit entity. From moving headquarters to Chicago in 2001, to building a 787 line in South Carolina, to the past decade or so of hardball negotiating for local tax breaks and infrastructure improvements, it’s clear that Boeing no longer belongs to us and is no longer the “home team.”
Of all the bad memories, perhaps none is more painful than the downturn that culminated with the congressional action that ended the federally-funded program to develop a supersonic transport or SST. When that happened in March 1971, it was the most devastating in a string of setbacks that ultimately reduced the Boeing payroll in Washington from more than 100,000 down to 32,500 in just a few years.
In the aftermath of the SST cancellation, two local real estate professionals named Bob McDonald and Jim Youngren noticed that in spite of the doom and gloom prevailing in the national media’s depiction of the “Boeing Bust” in Seattle, the local real estate market had not actually badly faltered. While the economy had certainly stumbled and unemployment soared, historians now point to that era as something of a watershed for the tech boom of the 1980s. Many of the laid off engineers and machinists didn’t move away, and more than a few stayed in town and launched their own businesses.
But back in April 1971, McDonald and Youngren were still having a hard time. The two men often invited out-of-town investors to Seattle to look at properties, and they discovered that most expected to find the city in terrible shape. As McDonald told The Seattle Times in 1972, “When we met [investors] at the airport and drove them into town, they were amazed that Seattle wasn’t a ghost town with weeds growing in the streets, that office buildings actually were going up.”
Frustrated by what they saw as a major misperception, the pair decided to play a little joke to call attention to the real story. So they put up a billboard near Sea-Tac Airport that proclaimed, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights.” But few got the joke, and most took the message seriously. And some were offended that anyone would belittle Seattle this way.
“After a few days, the mood began to change,” McDonald told the Times. “It became apparent that not everyone thought it was funny, particularly the news media.”
The billboard was only up for 15 days, but a Seattle Times photograph of McDonald and Youngren standing in front of it is widely circulated (without context) on the web, and has ensured that the unintended meaning has lived on in local and even national folklore more than 40 years later.
And while nobody around here is happy when Boeing decides to build airplanes anywhere but the Pacific Northwest, the economy here has diversified immensely in the past 40 years and is not as dependent as it once was on aerospace manufacturing. So it just may be that the old “if Boeing sneezes, Seattle catches cold” adage may no longer apply. Nowadays, it might be better put, “if Boeing sneezes, Seattle hands it a tissue.”