Seattle Views Its Future, In `Twin City' -- Vancouver Conference Draws Many Leaders

VANCOUVER, B.C. - When many of Seattle's business, government and civic elite gathered over the weekend for a conference about opportunities in the future, they found a perfect setting.

The leadership conference sponsored by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce was held here at the Westin Bayshore Hotel, whose waterfront rooms take in an impressive view of what may be Seattle's future.

Vancouver's harbor is much like Seattle's. Mountains rise in the distance, cargo ships arrive from Asia, and the city's hills roll down to the shoreline.

But, while Seattle has struggled over decisions about its harbor, Vancouver went ahead and built on or near the waterfront a number of projects envied by Seattle's business establishment.

Vancouver built a waterfront world trade center, which is now linked to an international finance and telecommunications network. Vancouver built waterfront hotels and other new commercial developments. And, thanks to progressive city planning, Vancouver also set aside waterfront land for walkways and bicycle paths. The attractive result seems to be the perfect combination of people, places and commerce.

Vancouver's Mayor Gordon Campbell, a former developer, believes that major projects in his city must include public benefits. Setting aside open space or affordable housing in a project adds value to the developer's land, he says.

Gordon says he tells business that, if they want to build, they must provide things the public wants. There are no retreats, and therefore no arguments, on that fundamental public goal, he says.

Resolving arguments was a key theme of this and past chamber leadership meetings. This year's conference had a different focus, however.

While recent conferences dealt with specific policy problems - such as transportation funding and growth management - and ideas for solving them, this conference was built around a concept, said Chamber President George Duff.

This conference was consciously aimed at creating links between the Seattle area and British Columbia, regions that share similar economies, geography and other factors. The ostensible trigger for the discussion was the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect last year and has the goal of lowering tariffs between the two nations.

Each year, the chamber is broadening the focus of its conferences. By successive years, the focus has grown from Seattle to include King County and Puget Sound. That broadening reflects the widening markets of Seattle businesses, said Duff.

At this conference, people were talking about a new partnership between the Northwest's largest cities. Some were saying Vancouver and Seattle should think of themselves as the Pacific Rim's Twin Cities that share ideas and investment.

Canada already is a significant presence in Washington's economy as the second biggest trading partner after Japan. Washington exported $1 billion worth of goods to Canada in 1986, the most recent year for which statistics were available.

Larry Bell, chairman and chief executive officer of the utility here, B.C. Hydro, said British Columbia and Washington state were already a linked community. A Portland-Vancouver corridor, now with 4.5 million population, could grow to 10 million by the year 2000, he said. Bell said he was excited by the ``mounting flow of economic activity in our region'' and urged people to work for continued growth.

Seattle Port Commissioner Paul Schell offered the most creative view of what may evolve from stronger ties between the two regions.

Seeing a variety of shared cultural, business and environmental concerns, Schell called for a kind of union between the people living in an area bordered by Portland, Spokane and Vancouver.

Schell suggested calling the region the New Pacific and starting to work together.

He stressed that each side would maintain its respective government and identity and work on what he called shared strategies for the future.

As do business executives in Vancouver, Schell sees a future dominated by global trade. He says Seattle and the port must vigorously assert their place in that future or be left behind.

The Vancouver success in urban planning in part flows from a decision made here more than two decades ago to not allow itself to be divided by building a large freeway.

Today, Vancouver is not served by a major through-road comparable to Interstate 5.

Vancouver also decided to promote high-rise residential buildings. Today, thousands live in high rises here and walk to their downtown jobs.

As Campbell notes, however, the situation in Vancouver is not ideal.

Despite having its own rail system, Vancouver has traffic problems, with some of the worst congestion involving crossing a bridge from the major city to the suburb of North Vancouver.

The conference was ended yesterday with a presentation by David Sabey, a Seattle entrepreneur who urged his audience to sweep aside negative thoughts and plan for a better future.

Sabey wondered what would happen today if someone suggested building a Space Needle, which in 1962 represented Seattle's grab for world attention.

``We've got to get through the frustration stage and get on with planning,'' Sabey said.

``Folks, we gotta just do it.''