In Seattle Prosperity Beckons

NEAL R. PEIRCE

August 23, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Seattle. -- What does a great international ''citistate'' have to do to be successful in the tough, competitive new world economy?

Is it a great port, or airport? A welcoming door to foreign visitors and investment? State-of-the-art telecommunications facilities, such as fiber-optic networks and sophisticated transmitters? Facilities for international conferences? Top museums and orchestras? Sleek rail transit lines?

The ''experts'' will give you all those answers -- and then add more. Success depends, they say, on having famed universities focused on state-of-the-art scientific and technology breakthroughs. Citistates that want to break into premier world markets, it's suggested, need a starting coterie of corporations with employees trained to the highest international levels. Foreign consulates and international banks need to be on hand to facilitate contacts, transfer capital, make deals.

From Milan to Miami, Barcelona to Boston, Houston to Hong Kong, the international city debate is warming up as national governments lose their economic clout and citistates maneuver to capture global market shares.

Some regions seem to be working up just enough chutzpah to declare themselves ''world-class'' or ''international'' players, but then fail to mobilize resources to make the boast ring true.

But not the Seattle citistate. The Puget Sound region is already a recognized U.S. gateway to Pacific Rim markets. It's a highly trade-dependent area (Boeing, Microsoft, timber). And it's worried about economic diversification.

What's most noteworthy -- maybe a model for other regions -- is Seattle's effort to learn from the world. The three-year-old Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle -- a collaboration of the city of Seattle, King County, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Port of Seattle and organized labor -- is actually modeled on European and Asian port-city promotion councils in which government, business and labor pool their resources.

Last year, when 70 Seattle-area business and civic leaders made their 10th annual ''intercity'' visit, their destination was overseas for the first time. They flew to Europe to hear firsthand how the Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Stuttgart citistates are positioning themselves for the new global economic order.

The Seattleites were impressed to learn how European regions work incessantly to promote international trade, foreign investment, and tourists from abroad, based on much closer partnerships than the historically adversarial U.S. model. They saw how apprenticeship programs help make highly competent technicians out of young people who'd easily fall through the cracks in American regions.

Seattle City Councilman Jim Street, who went on the trip, praises Stuttgart for achieving dynamic economic expansion without population growth -- a fruit, he sees, of aiming for ''value-added productivity'' rather than raw numbers of new jobs.

Another lesson from the European cities, says Seattle Mayor Norman Rice, is ''how land use planning and mass transit can make a region more competitive and livable at the same time.''

Next spring the Seattleites will head for Japan, not to visit Tokyo but rather the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe). They'll be briefed on a new Science City and other infrastructure projects that Seattle Trade Alliance director William Stafford predicts ''will transform Kansai into one of the most important economic regions of the world in the 21st century.''

The best guidebook yet on how a citistate tries to position itself globally -- ''International Seattle: Creating a Globally Competitive Economy'' -- will be published by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute in September. Co-authors John Hamer and Bruce Chapman cover the waterfront from telecommunications and ''sister cities'' to tourism and ports.

To play the international game, they say, a region has to keep on expanding its capacity, from beefed-up international agendas in the universities and foreign language training in the schools to international arts and cultural events.

The most critical warning I've seen anywhere on citistate development will appear in the Discovery Institute book, however. It's from Seattle Mayor Rice:

''All the international savvy and all the trade missions in the world will not keep this region competitive,'' notes Rice, ''if we allow our environment, or our quality of life, or our young people, or our educational system to go to hell.''

Citing problems in front of Seattle right now, Mr. Rice continues: ''We've got to invest in our schools. We've got to get off the dime and build a world-class transportation system. We've got to manage growth, to allow development and protect our environment. We've got to pay attention to our infrastructure -- both our physical and our human infrastructure.''

Failure to provide opportunity across the class and income lines, Mr. Rice warns, can lead to a region ''divided into haves and have-nots.''

The Dutch, it's interesting to note, guard specifically against economic development projects that don't benefit local people. ''In the Netherlands, you can only go ahead with an economic project if it has a good social return,'' notes Rotterdam-based urbanist Leo Van den Berg.

Maybe the Dutch formula's too tough for ''free enterprise'' America. But the proficiency with which savvy Asian and European foreign citistates are outstripping ours in economic growth, in social opportunities and attractive physical development, suggests we have a lot of learning to do, fast.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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