Seattle’s Norm Rice takes USCM helm
When Boeing Company cut 6,100 jobs in 1992, Seattle residents had no idea that it was only the first stage of a nearly 30,000-employee layoff. Aside from being the chief employer in Seattle, Boeing’s industrial track record included heavy trade and merchant exchange from areas as far away as Japan.
Now Seattle is trying to recover from the blow to its economy after trying for years to establish itself as a separate entity from the aerospace giant.
Ironically, Seattle had escaped the brunt of the recession of the early ’90s that hit the rest of the country. While America’s employment growth rate declined rapidly, Seattle’s, bolstered by an influx of new residents, remained virtually unchanged. Later, as nationwide employment rates increased, downturns in the defense industry and Pentagon cutbacks forced Boeing to begin large-scale downsizing. It was the kind of blow that could devastate a city.
Mayor Norm Rice, however, is not about to let such a setback prevent him from improving Seattle’s economic outlook.
Elected in 1989, Rice, the city’s first black mayor, seeks to rebuild its financial profile by making it attractive to other industries.
Prior to his election as mayor, Rice spent 11 years on the city council where he spearheaded a strong policy of diversity and growth. Since the Boeing layoffs, his administration has sought to parlay industrial interest into a reputation for being home to some of the country’s up-and-coming high-tech firms. The relocation of Microsoft to the area has helped to attract many small multimedia firms as well as a large pool of technical talent. Additionally, its importance as a trade hub has attracted corporations such as Chrysler-Plymouth and McCaw Cellular.
Seattle is also expanding its economic boundaries westward. In 1994, Rice welcomed Russian President Boris Yeltsin during a six-hour visit to discuss increased U.S. investment in Russia. A Seattle-based company, TPC Foods, awaits diplomatic approval to open a 90,000, square-foot retail grocery in Russia. In turn, Russia also has a vested interest in Seattle — Yeltsin is interested in continuing trade with Boeing because of its expertise in the aerospace industry.
Despite the attention focused on attracting the larger industries to the area, Rice has not neglected local business. By reserving select city contracts for local firms, Rice has given small businesses a chance to share the revenue generated by urban development. In early 1994, he introduced a plan that gives minority- and women-owned businesses an opportunity to vie for a larger share of Seattle’s annual spending of nearly $80 million in goods and nonprofessional services. Under the Plan, the city will award preference points to those firms in competitive bidding and give bonus points to companies in bids involving very large purchase contracts, with a goal of awarding 5 percent of new business to minority firms.
Given that blacks account for only 10 percent of Seattle’s population, the combination of policy change and government assistance in the form of the federal Linked Deposits program, which provides black businesses with up to $100 million in low-interest loans, has been beneficial to area minority businessmen. Regina Tyner, President of American Communications Enterprises, publisher of Diversity Business News in Seattle, says that Rice has done much to set a policy foundation for area black businesses.
“I find that Mayor Rice has put more emphasis on public policy resulting in procedures that have the potential to be very effective for black businesses. There is a lasting system in place — with or without an individual at the helm,” Tyner says. “I feel that the foundation that he is building upon and the process that he is putting into place will bring long-term results.” Tyner also says that Rice’s business style is not one of random favoritism, but a method of creating a policy framework that will ensure that the astute businessman will have the necessary wherewithal to succeed.
But business is not the only area in which public policy has resulted in greater opportunity for minorities. Rice also fostered the development of diversity in the ranks of city government, and its cultural distribution has changed dramatically under his administration. Since Rice’s first term, minority appointments have increased by 60 percent, and blacks account for nearly one-third of all top-ranking administrators and officials in Seattle city government.
The Urban Growth Problem
Yet Rice is most known for his efforts to deal with Seattle’s urban growth. Critics are calling it the “Urban Village War,” and the emphasis at this stage is on the last word — war.
It is a result of the 1990 Washington State Growth Management Act, which focused on redirecting urban sprawl by mandating cities to formulate plans to accommodate growth. Because the influx of residents to areas of the city not designed for heavy population concentrations has taken a direct toll on every element of Seattle’s daily existence, controlling urban growth is the most critical maneuver for the Rice administration.
Seattle’s problem, however, is not unique — like many of the nation’s older cities, centrifugal forces are drawing families as well as providers of goods and services away from the city’s enter. City planners believe that every aspect of urban design is intertwined — one sector’s dysfunctionality can infect another. And that factor is critical, with the growth that Seattle has experienced in recent years. City officials expect growth to increase an additional 14 percent — nearly 72,000 people — by the year 2014. And Seattle must have a strategy in place by then to accommodate the increase. That strategy is the Comprehensive Growth Plan, begun in 1994.
According to the plan, the majority of Seattle’s growth will be channeled to 39 select districts called urban villages and urban centers. In the remainder of the city, zoning will be adjusted to direct growth toward each village, resulting in closely-packed areas of development and business. In all, approximately 92,000 Seattle residents are within each urban village and, 150,000 reside outside village boundaries.
A revolutionary transit system, in which vans will circulate from door to door, dropping residents at transportation centers leading to a regional light-rail system will help the plan work. The light-rail system, proposed by a three-county Regional Transit Authority, will include construction of aboveground and underground-streetcars, operation of commuter railroads on existing tracks and the expansion of bus service at a cost of $6.5 billion over the next 16 years.
Change of this magnitude requires careful implementation, and communication is a vital component to its success. Although growth management is now imperative to preserve the quality of life for Seattle’s citizens, articulation of the plan to residents has not been without incident. Some have misinterpreted the imminent changes and how they will affect them.
Reassuring them has not been easy, say city officials who work closely with the mayor. Dennis Myer, senior urban designer for Seattle’s Office of Management Planning, says that Rice has done quite well in dealing with public concern about the feasibility of the new plan. “There are unavoidable problems — a lot of concerns were raised in the citizen’s minds,” he says. “Some residents thought the proposal meant dramatic changes in their neighborhoods, and that they weren’t going to be involved in the process. But I think that Mayor Rice has tried to be up front with our citizens. He’s gone right into the town meetings, right into the hot spots, and tried to be direct and answer questions honestly.”
In an attempt to decrease public confusion about the impending changes, Rice has created “mini city managers” to help involved communities reach satisfactory versions of the plan’s requirements. The delegation of city officials to explain and tailor the plan to the needs of each village will, Rice hopes, help him to effectively gauge citywide reactions.
Repopulating the downtown area and drawing interest back to those areas that have suffered a decline in population is another focus of the plan. Linked closely with that project is restructuring the public transportation system in an effort to turn the “urban villages” into pedestrian-friendly hubs. Rice says, “We simply must rethink our whole notion of mobility and transit.”
Zoning guidelines are an integral part of the plan — if shopping centers, schools and places of business can strategically dot Seattle and the Puget Sound area, people will follow. In this stage of the plan, however, the larger rezoning measures have yet to be implemented. “Right now, zoning has not changed dramatically,” senior public information officer Phyllis Miller says. “It’s basically a strategy to encourage growth in certain locations where the zoning exists for it and to deter it in areas where the zoning doesn’t allow for it.”
“Rice wants to see city government set up in a way that it can better deal with what the plan calls for,” Myer says. “He’s been committed to a more detailed neighborhood planning effort as a way of taking the plan to the next level..”
Although he does not expect miracles, Rice is dedicated to nurturing the plan as far as his term allows. “I believe that this experiment will be, at the very least, a primer that many other cities can refer to when they are faced with implementation of progressive, effective, highly functional urban design,” Rice says.
In June 1995, Rice will add another credit to his list of accomplishments — his term as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Several issues are high on the USCM priority list for the new year, among them the restructuring of Housing and Urban Development, welfare reform, unfunded mandates and reconciling differences between the Senate and House versions of the crime bill.
Under the auspices of the USCM, a committee of housing and community development experts from across the nation will work to formulate policies to buffer the effects of HUD program cuts in the cities.
Another important focus is maintaining nutrition and jobs programs within the welfare system and giving tax credits to businesses hiring welfare recipients.
“Right now the debate is focused on ending welfare, and we think the real debate should be on ending poverty,” Rice said recently in U.S. Mayor. “There should be maintenance of entitlements … like nutrition and jobs programs.”
City governments should participate in creating government assistance policies because ultimately they will deal with the program’s results on the city level, Rice says.
Additionally, unfunded mandates, long a USCM issue, will continue to command attention, but since the passage of the Kempthorne legislation to control future unfunded mandates, conference leaders will now focus on existing mandates.