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KUOW debate
KUOW “That’s Debatable” participants, from left, Maud Daudon, Marilyn Strickland, moderator Ross Reynolds, Nikkita Oliver and Cary Moon on stage at the SIFF Egyptian Theater in Seattle on Wednesday night. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A movie theater in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood was the setting for a dramatic production on Wednesday evening, complete with laughs, cheers and even a surprise ending. Whether the protagonist was a good guy or a villain was ultimately the subject of debate.

Seattle’s KUOW played host to the event called “That’s Debatable,” and a few hundred people packed the SIFF Egyptian Theater to hear two sides offer their take on the proposition: Is Amazon good for Seattle?

Arguing “yes” to the question were Maud Daudon, former CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and Marilyn Strickland, former mayor of Tacoma and current president and CEO of the Chamber.

Arguing “no” were Cary Moon and Nikkita Oliver, both candidates during the 2017 mayoral election in Seattle.

KUOW debate
Joshua McNichols, left, and Carolyn Adolph, hosts of KUOW’s “Primed” series, show a time-lapse video of Seattle growth over three years. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Joshua McNichols and Carolyn Adolph, hosts of KUOW’s recurring series about Amazon called “Primed,” opened the event by showing a time-lapse video, previously covered on GeekWire, that captured the dramatic rise of Seattle in just three years.

“Most places would do anything to have this much growth,” Adolph said. “But here in Seattle, that’s debatable.”

The audience was able to get in on the evening’s action by answering a few questions via text message, with the results displayed on screen.

“Are you an Amazon Prime member?” Seventy-seven percent answered, “Yes, it completes me,” and 23 percent answered, “No, I’d rather starve than eat your bread.” Nice Pearl Jam reference from the radio folks.

KUOW debate
(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
KUOW debate
(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“Do you work at Amazon?” Sixteen percent in the crowd answered, “Yes, want a biosphere tour?” and 84 percent said, “No, but can you get me into the biosphere?” in a play on Amazon’s new Spheres in downtown Seattle.

The audience was also asked to use one word to describe their feelings about Amazon, and a word cloud on the screen showed “gentrification” and “growth” as the most popular inputs, along with such offerings as “convenience,” “tech,” “homelessness,” “satan,” “prosperity” and “traffic.”

Even Alexa was asked to weigh in, via an Echo Dot on stage. “Alexa, is Amazon good for Seattle?” McNichols asked Amazon’s voice assistant. “Sorry, I don’t know that one,” she replied diplomatically.

KUOW host Ross Reynolds acted as moderator and offered up one more audience vote before the participants took the stage to deliver opening statements.

KUOW debate
KUOW’s Ross Reynolds and the results of the vote on the main proposition of the night before the two sides debated. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“Amazon is good for Seattle,” read the line on the screen, looking for yes or no replies. The “yes” votes totaled 56 percent, while 44 percent voted “no.” The stage was set for Oliver and Moon to try to sway the crowd in favor of their position.

Daudon opened by calling the proposition of “all good/all bad” a false premise.

“I think it sort of sounds like something our president might tweet. ‘Amazon, great! Amazon, bad!” Daudon said. “I was hoping that tonight we could dig a little deeper than that because it’s always nuanced. What we’re really here to talk about is the biggest word we just saw on the screen, and that is growth.”

She said there’s no question that Seattle’s recent prosperity has created benefits and challenges, but that the answer doesn’t lie in singling out an individual company.

Oliver countered in her opening statement by asking, when we’re talking about the innovation and convenience that Amazon delivers with a single click, whose back that is being built on. It was a theme she and Moon returned to throughout the night as they expressed concern for Amazon fulfillment center workers, in contrasting their wages and opportunity for advancement against those of the 40,000 high-paid tech workers filling towers in downtown Seattle and South Lake Union.

KUOW debate
Nikkita Oliver and Cary Moon during KUOW’s “That’s Debatable” in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Strickland argued that major metropolitan areas that do not have Amazon face the same challenges that Seattle is facing today in transportation, housing affordability and density.

“I think one of the things that happens sometimes in cities like Seattle, that are full of abundance — and admittedly, people who aren’t doing well, which happens in a lot of metro areas — is that we sometimes take things for granted,” Strickland said.

Moon said that Amazon has a particular way of operating that is against the goals of the City of Seattle.

“While we all like to imagine that a rising tide can float all boats, the reality of our region is that the yachts are rising and everybody else is sinking beneath the surface,” she said.

For about an hour, Daudon, Strickland, Oliver and Moon went back and forth on a variety of issues tied to Amazon and Seattle’s evolving storyline.

They debated the good Amazon has done by supporting Fare Start and creating five new restaurants for the non-profit, as well as the creation of a permanent home for Mary’s Place to shelter homeless women and children. They talked about what advice they would give to any of the cities vying for Amazon’s second headquarters. They went back and forth about taxes, diversity, women in tech, funding for schools, transparency, retail, new startups and much more.

In the end, Strickland said the myriad of problems facing Seattle cannot be singularly attributed to Amazon.

“Amazon has been good for Seattle and it’s been good for the region,” she said. “It’s part of the brand of Seattle. Like Microsoft, like Starbucks, like Nordstrom, like Alaska Airlines, like Boeing. Amazon is part of that identity. … Anytime a local company starts, we hope they are successful. They just became wildly successful. And every single person who uses their product is complicit in the success.”

After the applause died down for that final zinger, Oliver delivered the last argument of the night — and she got a rousing reaction of her own.

“The brand of Seattle is not those corporations that were named,” Oliver said. “The brand of Seattle … is a small business down on Rainier and Henderson, it’s a small business in the Central District, it’s Rainier Beach High School, [as] gentrification displaces and pushes out [it’s] the people who make Seattle the city that it is.”

KUOW debate
The final vote. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Reynolds wrapped things up by calling for a final text message vote to determine the winners of the debate. Once again the audience replied to the line “Amazon is good for Seattle.” This time, 50 percent said “yes” and 50 percent said “no.”

Oliver and Moon’s ability to swing 6 percent of the voters toward their position made them the winners.

Afterward, Moon told GeekWire what she thought turned the crowd in their favor.

“I think getting it out of the realm of ‘Is Amazon good for the world?’ vs. ‘Is Amazon good for Seattle?’ helped people understand there are real impacts on the ground, and we can’t just talk about convenience,” Moon said.

She also said she wasn’t surprised by the vote before the debate started.

“I think this is a city that loves, loves, loves our tech heroes,” she said. “But to have a real conversation about how to make tech better I think is a good conversation for us to have.”

KUOW debate
“What should we debate next?” KUOW asked on Wednesday in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
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