Mayor upbeat at luncheon on state of city

Mayor Greg Nickels patted himself on the back last week at the Greater Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce luncheon, where he gave a "state of the city" talk.

"It's been a fascinating journey this past four years," he said. Noting that he was elected to his first term as mayor in 2001, Nickels said his focus from day one has been on safety and security. "We've had to make sure our city is safe from attacks like Sept. 11."

But the mayor also said a major earthquake is more likely to happen than a terrorist attack in Seattle, and that thought segued into a brief discussion of city plans to replace or upgrade its aging fire stations.

Two-thirds of them could fall down in a quake, Nickels said. "When you think about it, that's a real problem." However, he conceded the plans for new stations have not been popular in a number of different neighborhoods.

The mayor also touched on the post-9/11 economy, which he said hit Boeing particularly hard and caused the layoffs of around 30,000 workers at the aerospace giant.

The city can't count on those high-paying jobs coming back, Nickels added, especially since many airplane-parts-manufacturing jobs have been shifted overseas. "So we have to figure out... what our strengths are as a city," he said.

The answer, according to the mayor, lies in biotech and research and development. "I believe the number-one asset economically we have in our city is the University (of Washington)," he said. The school generates around $1 billion a year in research, and two-thirds of that is in life sciences, Nickels added.

He said Seattle used to treat the university the same way the United States treated the former Soviet Union in 1955. In other words, the mayor explained, it had a policy of containment and viewed the school as a neighborhood nuisance.

Some in the U District still feel that way, but Nickels said he believes the attitude needs to change. "The kinds of jobs and research they're doing is a window into the future."

Transportation is also a major issue for Seattle, according to the mayor, who said that Sound Transit was stuck in neutral when he was first elected. "We focused on getting ground broken."

And now the light-rail line is halfway done and on the way to the airport, Nickels said. "The transformation of the Rainier Valley is really amazing," he said of the project's side effects. Sound Transit will also be breaking ground soon for the segment to North Gate, the mayor vowed.

Nickels said he had four priorities when he was first elected in 2001, and they remain the same for his second term. Keeping neighborhoods safe is one, and improved transportation is another. The latter notably involves doing something about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, he said.

The mayor sounded upbeat about securing financing to replace the earthquake-damaged transportation link with a tunnel. "That's not going to be easy, but we're going to finish that job," he said. "We also have the challenge of fixing our streets and bridges."

Fostering a healthier job base in the city is another priority, Nickels said. Judging from recent tax revenues, more business is coming to the city, he said.

"But we want to make sure our kids can take these 21st-century jobs," Nickels stressed. That means the school system needs to be improved, he said. "We need to set the bar high for our kids."

A fourth priority for the mayor is providing affordable housing. More and more people working in Seattle can't afford to live in the city, he noted. "That exacerbates the transportation problem," Nickels noted.

A shortage of high-paying jobs also brought up the issue of people who have no place to live in Seattle. "We want to eliminate homelessness as a widespread condition in our community," the mayor said.

Nickels conceded that homelessness is also caused by drug and alcohol addictions, as well as mental problems, but he said people with those problems are not well-served by city services right now.

The mayor didn't offer up any particular solutions to that aspect of the homelessness problem, but he said housing, transportation and jobs remain the biggest challenges facing Seattle. "If we meet those challenges, the potential of the city will be unrivaled," Nickels enthused.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]