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Vancouver looks to Pacific to shake recession. An '86 fair on world transportation to play up Canadian city's trade quest

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When Ted Duncan looks out his office window at Vancouver Harbor, he sees events that could shape this port's economic future. Mr. Duncan, an economist with the British Columbia Office of Innovation, can glimpse things at the Expo '86 fairgrounds, where next year's international transportation World's Fair is to be held. The fair opens next May 2 and runs through Oct. 13, marking Vancouver's 100th anniversary.

And just a few degrees in the other direction, cargoes from this metropolis of 1.1 million depart for the Pacific Rim -- a vital region for this city. Not only Asian trade but Asian investment is counted on to take Vancouver out of a wrenching recession.

``When I first came here my house went for $50,000,'' says Garvin MacDonald, an executive with Microtel Pacific Research, a telecommunications firm. ``In six months, it could be sold for $120,000. Things were happening a little too fast then.'' But with the recession, housing prices slumped.

Microtel could be a microcosm of the city and much of British Columbia beyond the lower mainland region. Hard times forced Microtel to slash 800 from its work force of 3,300, but reorganization and examination of new alternatives make many think the company's prospects are pretty sound.

What is clear is that Vancouver's traditional resource base -- timber, fishing, mining, metals, energy -- can no longer sustain growth. A high living standard and laid-back style characterize this area, but a savage downturn saw unemployment reach more than 17 percent during the recession. It remains 15 percent today.

``The problem,'' a government official notes, ``is that we can get competitive in lumber or in manufacturing, but that means laying off workers or automating.''

Despite the unemployment rate, salaries are high. ``We are viewed as a hotbed of labor unrest,'' says Peter Thomson, vice-president of Discovery Park Foundation, a group orchestrating the high-technology research park drive.

While the provincial government is headed by W. C. Bennett of the pro-business Social Credit Party, pockets of antibusiness sentiment dominate in Vancouver. Mr. Bennett's austerity program a few years ago slashed one-fourth of the government payroll. His solution to economic woes comes in the form of tax credits, enterprise zones, and an end to many existing taxes.

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