CHAT WITH A MAYOR

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''I'm confident that we're going to come out of this transition period a star.'' Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich sinks into one of the upholstered, high-backed chairs in his spacious office to explain how he thinks his city of ''urban pioneers'' can adjust to a more service-based national economy and trounce the local forces of urban decay.

Long an iron-and-steel town, Cleveland now produces a broad mix of industrial products, from electrical equipment to fabricated metals. Noting that a certain level of manufacturing strength is vital for national defense, Mayor Voinovich credits Cleveland manufacturers with working particularly hard to modernize and diversify. ''Many are doing a darn good job.''

A city's age and the assets it acquires over time can be an advantage, in his view. Yes, repairs and upkeep are often vital. The entertainment area of the Cleveland Playhouse, the nation's oldest resident theater, for instance, is in the midst of a $25 million renovation. But the mayor argues that repairs are often cheaper than starting fresh, as many Sunbelt cities must do.

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Much of Voinovich's confidence that Cleveland will not only survive but thrive in the decades ahead is based on his conviction that most local business, labor, and civic leaders here now share an unwavering commitment to that goal.

''This community has decided it's going to solve its problems locally and do what has to be done,'' says the Republican mayor. ''We know, frankly, we're not going to get a lot of help from Washington.''

Several shiny new shovels resting near the door of the mayor's outer office serve as a reminder that he is a very frequent participant these days in ground-breakings for businesses and new housing, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. One major recent boost for the downtown core: Standard Oil of Ohio's decision to build a 45-story, $200 million corporate headquarters there.

Cleveland's business community and city government were openly at odds as recently as 1978, when the city defaulted on a short-term bond payment. But most urban analysts agree that the relationship changed dramatically when Mayor Voinovich was elected in November 1979. He promptly persuaded local banks to refinance the city's debt, asked a task force of accountants and auditors to assess the city's financial position, and tapped a group of top business executives to suggest ways to streamline city government.

That kind of cooperation has since blossomed into more joint ventures, such as Cleveland Tomorrow, a group of 40 top business leaders (''all heavy hitters, '' says the mayor) offering seed money and professional services to new development ventures. Another coalition - the Cleveland Roundtable - has an active labor-management committee aimed at keeping friction levels low.

''This city's situation has been about as difficult as any, but we now have a very good community response,'' says urban expert Paul R. Porter of Cleveland State University. ''The mayor has done a great deal to help build the kind of confidence that's paying off.''

Although Cleveland has been widely hailed in recent years as a ''comeback'' city, it still faces tough problems. On May 8 voters for the second time this year turned down the mayor's request for a payroll-tax hike to head off an expected deficit.

Voinovich, who is currently first vice-president of the National League of Cities, says local officials have often been ''cowards'' in asking for money needed and that states have often been reluctant to give cities the authority they need. But most of all, in these days of sharp federal tax and program cuts, he blames Washington for failing to warn taxpayers that there is no free lunch.

''The President is carrying out a policy of getting the federal government out of our lives, but he hasn't tied the circle together by saying, 'Look, we're cutting your taxes on the federal level, but your state and local taxes are going to have to go up . . . to fund essential programs.' Doggone it. He hasn't done that. And that's good old conservative Republicanism.''

Voinovich is also critical of Washington for not recognizing sooner what was happening to America's competitive position in manufacturing and more carefully weighing the impact on it of foreign policy decisions.

''There's been a kind of oblivious attitude,'' Voinovich says. ''I happen to believe that there needs to be closer cooperation among government, labor, and business, and that we should have some type of national industrial policy. If we don't . . . we're not going to compete in the new world.''

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