Sunday, January 2, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Schell: `I'm Not A Wuss'; Canceled Celebration Puts Focus On What Kind Of City We Are, Our Appetite For Risk

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

If you want the last laugh, look at it this way: While the rest of the world had a big mess to clean up yesterday, all we have to do is take down a chain-link fence.

We were the teenagers grounded on prom night, the apartment dweller who hears music upstairs but isn't invited.

While our televisions showed the New Millennium turn the globe into one mammoth block party - time zone by time zone - we peered out of our proverbial bomb shelter, still arguing whether it was prudence or paranoia that put us there.

So what now?

With images of WTO disturbances and terrorist plots imbedded in our collective psyche - and particularly haunting Seattle Mayor Paul Schell - how do we decide how much risk is too much, and whether we are risk-takers at all?

"I'm a former Iowa linebacker. I'm not a wuss," Schell insisted yesterday, saying he's still glad he called off Seattle Center's New Year's Eve bash. "I'm a risk-taker by nature, but this was the right thing to do."

Not everyone agrees.

"The mayor overreacted," said Paul Hansen, 40, who was downtown yesterday. "He got caught with his pants down on WTO and got burned bad a month ago. He was not going to let that happen again."

Noted Hansen's 10-year-old daughter, Dianna: "All the other places had parties."

As Schell prepared to head to his Whidbey Island retreat for a day of bowl-game watching yesterday, he expressed sympathy with those who missed the big celebration. But, he said, "If something had happened, I couldn't live with myself."

Schell also wanted to clarify a remark he'd made on New Year's Eve while other American cities cheered the coming of 2000 with elaborate outdoor gatherings.

"In New York and D.C.," Schell had said, "people are comfortable with risk. People moved here not to be in an environment where they didn't feel safe outside."

Northwesterners averse to risk? Are we not the sons and daughters of pioneers - and pioneers ourselves in technology and other fields?

Yesterday, Schell called Seattle a "gutsy, going city" and said he didn't mean we can't handle risk. But he added, "When people step on the street in Paris, London and New York, they know there's a certain level of risk. I don't think that's true in Seattle, Kansas City, Denver or Minneapolis . . . clearly in Seattle we're (becoming) an international city and we have to get used to it."

Pulling the plug on Seattle's part of a once-in-a-lifetime global celebration "is the last thing I wanted to do but we had a very unique circumstance: We were the only city that really had a bomb delivered destined for our area."

Schell conceded he is still grappling with the aftermath of the World Trade Organization gathering, an event that paralyzed the city and caused $20 million in damage and lost business, plus complaints about police inaction, then overreaction. Had he known what WTO would bring, the city would not have invited it here, said Schell.

"We got our nose bloodied. We're not big enough, and that's OK," he said. "But that's not to say we won't have lots and lots of conventions and international meetings."

Some locals were offended

The suggestion that Seattle might be a town of safety-seekers doesn't sit well with some locals. "People moved here to be risk-takers," said Loren Foss, a longtime mountain-climbing instructor and guide.

Foss said people could have made their own decisions about whether they believed Seattle Center would be safe. "They want to choose their risks."

But the specter of a possible terrorist bombing makes national attention to our aborted party and a few jabs from Jay Leno seem pretty insignificant, some officials say.

"I don't regret this decision," said Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago. "Being a parent, one of the things I learned is you make the best decisions at the time, given the information you have."

Drago doesn't want the city to adopt a duck-for-cover attitude, but says everyone is still feeling the sting of WTO.

"We're in a time of reflection," she said. "I think we're going to have to incorporate and digest what's happened in the last month. And I think it will take a little time."

Another City Council member, Peter Steinbrueck, worries that "we are somewhat at a point of paranoia right now." He said he was skeptical about the decision to call off the Seattle Center event, but doesn't want to second-guess it.

"We still have a lot of small-town attributes," Steinbrueck said. "We still have some maturing to do."

Juan Noriega, owner of the Old Timers' Cafe in Pioneer Square, complained that, "Everywhere in the whole wide world it was a celebration and here, it was just fear."

Noriega said the focus now must be on bouncing back: "You just look forward into the future and try to make it happen."

The specter of `Chicken Little'

Avoiding risk can be risky itself, said Frank Farley, a psychologist and professor at Temple University.

" `Chicken Little' is the scariest metaphor in America," says Farley. "This is a bold, inventive nation. We don't want to impair that. We don't want to create a fortress mentality."

Farley said Seattle is in an enviable, but delicate, position in the national mindset. "Seattle is in many ways a bellwether for the future of this country. And actions like that (canceling the New Year's party) event can impact people."

It definitely impacted Jim Merriken, 36, of San Antonio, who was traveling to be with friends for the new year in Seattle. Merriken was in the Salt Lake City airport when he heard about the cancellation of the Seattle Center festivities.

"Seattle is the laughingstock of the world," Merriken said. "I was expecting to go down to Seattle Center and have a good time and we wound up twiddling our thumbs."

Merriken came to Seattle anyway, but ended up watching TV, and doubts the wisdom of giving in to a potential violent act. "I'm a teacher and I tell my kids not to give a bully what they want."

`We made the right move'

At The W Hotel downtown, food-and-beverage manager Karl Bruno said shutting down the New Year's event was undoubtedly a tough call for city officials, but the correct one.

"Can you be too careful? I'm pretty conservative as an individual and I think we made the right move. On the heels of the WTO, we had to be cautious," Bruno said.

"We're still growing up. I'm from Chicago, so I know how a city can be."

At the Four Seasons Olympic, business was usual except that the bar and lobby had just half the typical New Year's Eve crowd. But Peter Martin, general manager, said he doesn't expect the WTO trouble or the New Year's party cancellation to knock Seattle out of its position of prominence.

"I think the next 50 years belong to Seattle. We are a Pacific Rim city. We're capable of handling anything, anytime. We will continue to house national and international events," he said. "It's not a sky-is-falling situation."

Newly elected Seattle City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro said it's unfortunate WTO left such scars.

"Nobody died. It wasn't Kent State," she said. "I came here from New York. I love this city. This is one of the great cities in the nation. . . . We should not be afraid."

The way King County Executive Ron Sims sees it, people here aren't afraid of risks, but don't want to give up a small-town closeness.

"We're still getting used to the fact people honk their horns. We wait for the light to change," Sims said. "I worry sometimes about losing that civility.

"All of a sudden we have to realize we're no longer exempt from the interests of violent people. We are a city that the global community is aware of."

Sims said he absolutely agreed with Schell's decision to close the Center and suggested that many people would have stayed at home with their families regardless.

"We're not wusses and wimps," he said. "We're an affluent community who chose to celebrate in people's homes. Most communities would envy us."

Times staff reporters Susan Gilmore, Linda V. Mapes, Steve Miletich, Carol M. Ostrom and Lisa Pemberton-Butler contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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