'King' Willie Hopes to Spin Gold From Diversity

IN San Francisco, a city that revels in its diversity, ideas for securing economic prosperity are every bit as varied as the citizens who live and work here.

At this week's economic summit in the "City by the Bay," there was investment whiz Charles Schwab, voicing the familiar mantra of his fellow businessmen: lower taxes and less government interference. At the other end of the dais sat Mike Casey, the fiery head of the city's hotel and restaurant workers, who described laid-off workers as "the casualties of an economy too investor-driven."

Perched in the middle, San Francisco's ebullient new mayor, Willie Brown, wielded his wicked wit to keep the two days of talk firmly focused on the city's economic future.

The summit, an assembly of participants from business, labor, academia, and grass-roots community organizations, underscored the difficulties inherent in weaving a vibrant economic tapestry from the diverse array of interests in San Francisco.

It's a challenge not lost on Mayor Brown. "For too long, San Francisco has been fighting a 'civil war' over its economic future," he told attendees. "[The war] has pitted neighborhoods against corporations against unions against small businesses, and has contributed to the uncertainty that currently casts a pall over our city's economic future."

For years, businesses here have complained that City Hall's high-cost, left-leaning policies are bad for business. The anti-business perception has contributed to scores of business moving to the suburbs, costing San Francisco 35,000 jobs since 1990.

Riding the recovery wave

But numerous speakers at this week's summit hold out much hope for the city's economic prospects, linked in large part to recovery of the California economy and to the high-technology powerhouses driving the Bay Area's regional success.

Brown, who for 15 years reigned with savvy and absolute authority as Speaker of the state Assembly, modeled the San Francisco summit after the one he organized on the California economy in 1993. His political pull was evident in the high-powered types among the 400-plus attendees, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, two Clinton Cabinet secretaries, and AFL-CIO head John Sweeney.

Brown envisions a cooperative effort to encourage new business investment, to cope with shrinking revenues to finance city services, and to make San Francisco an unchallenged economic center for the region. But he, like many at the summit, admits that achieving these goals may depend on overcoming the gridlock produced by the city's highly fractured and often warring political interests.

"The odds are we end up at each others' throats," said University of California, Berkeley, professor Stephen Cohen. "If we perform a political miracle, there will be a lot more to go around."

Hopes for that "miracle" now rest heavily on Brown's shoulders. During his three months in office, Brown has maintained the kind of high-energy visibility and popularity that won him election last December.

"He's stayed in the limelight," says Deborah Jackson, a public-health official attending the summit. "It's clear that he's trying to bring some change."

Brown gets credit from many for his ability to earn the respect of a wide spectrum of the city's competing forces. "Willie Brown is pro-business," declares Philip Quigley, the head of telecommunications giant Pacific Telesis. "The Brown administration has already demonstrated the recognition that a healthy San Francisco economy has to include organized labor," union leader Casey says with equal conviction.

"Mayor Brown has proven that he's a great politician," says Tom Kelly, managing partner of Arthur Andersen, a leading management consulting firm. "[But] he has yet to prove that he's a visionary."

The challenge is to synthesize conflicting interests "and end up with a clarity of thought that will attract the imagination and the fire of the people of San Francisco," argues Mr. Kelly. "And to do that, he has to make some tough choices."

Kelly's version of those choices was presented to the conference, the result of a study commissioned by the San Francisco Partnership, a newly formed, business-backed group. The study calls for the city to focus on several key industries - biomedical, multimedia, financial services, and tourism. It recommends policies conducive to such business development, including pre-zoned districts, streamlined regulation, construction of a new multimedia center, and creation of an "improbable coalition" of labor, business, and government.

Slicing the pie

Labor and community groups voiced more than a little skepticism about priorities of business. "I can't understand this talk about lowering taxes at this time," said Jim Morales, former head of the planning commission. "We are talking about the need to help low-income people survive in tough times."

The dialogue, however heated, was unusual in that it simply took place. Brown says he hopes to create a climate in which the dialogue can continue.

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