Seattle Mayor Sees Cities as 'Opportunity Centers'

AS the federal government downsizes its role and turns power over to the states, governors have been more effective at grabbing the spotlight than city mayors.

But Seattle Mayor Norm Rice plans to change that.

Recently elected president of the United States Conference of Mayors, Mayor Rice serves as chief spokesman for America's mayors. One of his priorities will be to push urban issues back under the nose of Congress.

He rebuffs the suggestion that cities' economic and cultural importance is declining.

''There is a tendency to stereotype cities as problem centers rather than opportunity centers,'' says Mr. Rice in a recent interview, in his office overlooking the Seattle waterfront. ''Cities are still the center of any regional economy. If the core city suffers, so does the region.''

His comments come prior to a two-day meeting starting tomorrow at which the conference's advisory board will map out a battle plan for the organization.

But with Congress dominated by suburb-oriented Republicans and contenders for the 1996 presidential race focused on balancing the federal budget, Rice faces a plateful of challenges.

He must try to rebuild cities' political clout in the nation's capital, to publicize what city governments are doing to become more efficient and creative; and he also must try to build a coalition that ties together interests of regional ''core'' cities, smaller suburban ''edge'' cities, and other local governments.

According to Rice, the city can be a foundation for economic building blocks ranging from educated workers to cultural amenities. ''The overarching theme that I'm trying to bring forward ... is the notion of economic investment,'' he says.

Three-point agenda

So he is trying to rally mayors around a three-point agenda:

* Becoming more creative at the local level, including building public-private coalitions to help accomplish goals.

''Cities are moving faster than is recognized,'' Rice says. For example, for three years, Seattle's retail center has languished since a linchpin department store, Frederick & Nelson, folded. Now the area is poised for revitalization, he says, thanks to a $24 million federal-loan guarantee and a $65 million low-interest loan from the city. These moves by government have made it economical for Nordstrom to move into the empty building.

* Streamlining the relationship between cities and federal programs so that they are tailored to the needs and goals of individual cities and based on accountability. Federal grants would be based partly on whether cities are on track to meet their goals.

This weekend, Rice and his colleagues will continue talks with Vice President Al Gore's ''reinventing government'' staff, which could implement some of the changes. Rice says this effort is part of ''strengthening the contract between cities and the federal government.''

* Lobbying more effectively to avoid what Rice calls a ''gutting'' of federal programs that help cities. ''We think we have a good chance to make our case in the Senate,'' where next year's budget now awaits action, he says.

''Every mayor in this country knows there is going to be less [federal money],'' Rice says. But if the cuts are too drastic, he says he foresees ''a gutting of the whole domestic agenda.''

Do Republican mayors share his views that the federal government should play an important role in urban issues from affordable housing to economic development?

Partisan differences

Rice concedes that there are partisan differences among mayors but asserts that ''there's more unity'' than division in the group. ''Mayors of cities are the ultimate pragmatists.''

Another challenge, he says, is striving for a unified message from county governments and mayors of both small and large cities.

Demographically, smaller ''edge cities'' are of increasing economic importance, while many large cities have seen their populations and tax base remain fairly flat.

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