As the Government encouraged cities to compete for the year-long post, held by Glasgow in 1990 and designated to Britain again in 2008, Newcastle (one of three cities to have applied already) made clear there would be no grand cultural statements to alienate the locals.
"Tyneside is the most vibrant place in Britain and it's that infectious character, that sense of life we need to capture in our bid," said Paul Rubenstein, director of Northern Arts. "We need to bottle something that's in the air."
Newcastle and Gateshead, which have always eyed each other with suspicion, are joining forces to bid, and already have Liverpool and Manchester as strong early rivals. Bradford, home of the Museum of Television, Film and Photography, was unaware of the race yesterday but said it would be prepared to bid "if invited".
The successful city will not need an established cultural reputation, but must have the capacity to develop and innovate culturally, said the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which will decide who wins the race to become European Capital of Culture.
"[This] is an honour and an opportunity," said Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture. "It is second to none as a showcase for a city's cultural and creative life."
It is also costly and risky. Dublin's year of culture in 1991 was beset by acrimony and it suffered unfavourable comparisons with its predecessor, Glasgow. A late pounds 5m cut-price bid had left it with inadequate time or resources to sell the concept to the people of the Irish Republic, said John Myerscough, a cultural planning consultant commissioned by Glasgow to evaluate the value of its holding the title in 1990.
He added: "The relationship between the organisers and a fledgling Ministry of Culture and local authorities wasn't strong. They ended up making up the message as they went along. Everyone felt Dublin wasn't `doing a Glasgow'. The lesson is - don't forget to brief and inform local constituencies."
While Dublin's year was a one-off celebration, Glasgow planned for the longer term. Its pounds 50m investment doubled the stakes other cities had paid out.
The gamble worked. Glasgow had undergone massive cultural change before 1990 and was waiting for the chance to show this off. Its economy made a net gain of pounds 14m from the accolade and it used the occasion to build the pounds 29.4m Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and to refurbish both the McLellan Galleries for pounds 5.8m and Scotland Street School for pounds 1.3m.
Though museum numbers had dipped alarmingly within a year, visitor levels were generally sustained. "Sustainability - not raising expectations then dropping them - is an important consideration," said Mr Myerscough.
Taking the crown for 2008 already seems akin to winning Olympic status. Liverpool was laying claim to second-city status yesterday. It said it had more museums and galleries than any city outside London and would capitalise on its Tate Gallery, pounds 6m of recent investment in its theatres and The Beatles for its bid.
Liverpool's own 800th anniversary in 2007 (events are already being planned) will help create the right administrative framework, it believes.
Newcastle is pinning hopes on its Baltic Flour Mill, the second largest contemporary art venue under construction on the south side of the Tyne. At the same site, a pounds 60m music centre will be built with a new Millennium Bridge across the Tyne to provide access from Gateshead.
But the city with the most headaches is Manchester, which has the escalating costs of staging the Commonwealth Games in 2002 to deal with. Costs have risen from an estimated pounds 58.5m to at least pounds 70m. The city could cite only Salford's new Lowry Museum and the Bridgewater Hall as selling points yesterday.
All cities have two years to work on bids under criteria to be announced later this year. The winner of the title will be announced in 2003.
NEWCASTLE & GATESHEAD
Cultural icons: Catherine Cookson, Paul Gascoigne
Gritty cultural identity to rival Glasgow, combined with massive riverside and city centre enhancements to build bid around. Diplomatically astute: launched bid in Tony Blair's presenceGateshead, which offers the Angel of the North statue
Culture quotient: 4 out of 5
Cultural icons: JB Priestley, Delius
No thought given to a bid yet, though ready to "if invited". Boasts superb National Museum of Television, Film and Photography. Titus Mill model village at Saltaire to be revamped. Even boasts Premier League football team
Culture quotient: 1 out of 5
Cultural icons: The Beatles, Alan Bleasdale
The Beatles remain its biggest draw and fascinate international visitors. Cultural investment weaker than Newcastle but it makes makes more of its football teams, despite their relative fall from grace in recent years. Tie-in to city's 2007 800th anniversary celebrations may appeal to judges
Culture quotient: 4 out of 5
Cultural icons: Sir Charles Halle, LS Lowry
Bridgewater Hall and Whitworth Art Gallery are among centrepieces of thriving cultural life and the gay scene is also buoyant, built around the canalside Village. If Salford (an old foe) joins bid, there's a new Lowry museum. But much of Manchester's new development is already focused on the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Culture quotient: 3 out of 5Reuse content