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Most Back A Viable Downtown But Poll Finds Residents Split About How To Redevelop It

The climate appears ripe for a major redevelopment to keep downtown Spokane a viable part of the local economy - but only if supporters can convince the public they have the right plan.

A new scientific survey suggests the vast majority of Spokane residents believe a strong downtown is at least somewhat vital to the local economy and nearly as many see two department stores as a major piece of the puzzle for downtown.

More than half of the people surveyed said they are coming downtown less frequently, citing such problems as parking, a poor selection of stores, distance and traffic as key factors in their decisions.

Residents are evenly split on whether local government should spend their public money on projects that can boost the economy to expand tax revenues, according to a poll conducted this week for The Spokesman-Review by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc.

But none of that contradicts the findings of a previous survey, which indicates that half the public opposes the city’s involvement in financing a parking garage that is part of a $100 million redevelopment plan.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do. They’ve done a poor sales job so far,” said Del Ali, analyst for the polling firm. “Can they turn it around? Absolutely. But it’s a Christmas gift that there’s no vote or referendum on this thing right now.”

The parking garage would be part of the $100 million redevelopment of River Park Square, which would include a new Nordstrom store, a 24-screen cinema and numerous other shops and restaurants.

Betsy Cowles, president of the companies that own River Park Square, said supporters have done everything possible to explain the project, including speaking at more than 50 community meetings.

“I don’t think you can ever do enough of that, and you can never win the battle of ‘There ought to be more public meetings,”’ she said. “We’re continuing to do that. If any group calls and says ‘We want to hear more about this,’ we always say ‘Yes.”’

Mayor Jack Geraghty said the project’s opponents have been much more vocal than the proponents “in manipulating this project.”

The city is willing to do anything legal to make the project possible, as long as it does not put taxpayers at risk, Geraghty said.

“It’s not our job to promote this project. It’s the role of the developers,” he said.

In a survey conducted earlier this month, Spokane residents seemed leery of city involvement in the parking garage portion of the redevelopment project.

Under current plans for the $100 million project, the River Park Square garage would be purchased with revenue bonds issued by a non-profit corporation formed by the shopping center’s owners. A public development authority, formed by the city, would rent the building and the land from the non-profit corporation. The garage’s revenues would be used to pay the debt, rent, maintenance and operations.

To allow the non-profit corporation to issue tax-exempt bonds, the City Council must approve the issuance of the bonds and the formation of the corporation. The city must also pledge its parking meter money, totaling $1.6 million this year, in case of shortfalls in land rent or maintenance and operations.

A previous plan called for the city to buy the garage itself with $30 million worth of revenue bonds. That plan was withdrawn because of public opposition.

Critics, including Spokane attorney Steve Eugster, have called the project “corporate welfare” and said it amounts to a public gift of funds to a private developer.

Neither the supporters nor the critics were surprised by survey results showing a strong downtown is overwhelmingly considered important to the local economy. But they had a different reaction to what that meant for the project.

“I think it certainly reaffirms why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Cowles said. “People of Spokane understand how important downtown is to the whole region.”

The poll also shows how important major retailers are to the region, she added.

“Do you think a viable downtown is important? Absolutely,” John Talbott, acting president of Citizens Putting Priorities First said. “But it’s not a big shopping development that would do it - it’s housing, specialty shops, the arts.”

“They want to make downtown a wonderful and exciting place. But they only want to make it wonderful and exciting for spending money.”

A strong retail core must exist to encourage other amenities such as more and better housing, according to Doug Sutherland. The Pierce County executive and former Tacoma mayor visited his former hometown of Spokane last October to voice his support for the downtown redevelopment project.

In the earlier survey, 50 percent of Spokane residents said they opposed city involvement in projects like the parking garage, while 39 percent said they support it.

Because that earlier survey dealt primarily with growth management and government spending issues, The Spokesman-Review commissioned a second survey, using the same scientific methods, that centered around downtown redevelopment.

“A strong downtown is not just shopping, but it’s a part of it,” Ali said. “It’s a big piece of the puzzle.”

The new survey shed some light on the public’s willingness to spend money on services they consider important. Strong majorities in the previous survey said they thought local government should spend more on roads, schools, crime prevention, air quality and low-income housing - items that can comprise the majority of any local tax budget.

Nearly three-fourths of those polled this week said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to bolster those services.

Talbott suggested that the 21 percent who weren’t willing to pay higher taxes were saying the government isn’t spending its money properly right now. There was no clear consensus among the residents surveyed regarding which tax should be raised. About a third favored an increase in the business and occupation tax, while a fourth supported a higher sales tax and about one in five said increases in the garbage and utility taxes.

“The overwhelming support (for higher taxes) surprises me,” Ali said. But he cautioned that it wasn’t a blanket endorsement for a tax increase.

“There’s a realization that you can’t get something for nothing, but you have to get something for your money,” he said. “You have to explain it well. You can’t be Santa Claus and you can’t be the Grinch.”

That sentiment carries over to questions of government involvement in projects that could boost the economy, Ali said. It probably explains why residents in the current survey are evenly split on the concept of local government spending their money to help boost the economy, while residents in the previous survey were more likely to oppose than support the city’s involvement in the parking garage project.

It’s a difference between the concept of public support of economic development projects, and the specifics of a particular project, Ali said. The earlier question was more specific, the later one more ambiguous.

To be successful, supporters of the project will have to be specific about what they want to do, and how the project will directly benefit the people of Spokane, he added.

They would also have to convince people they have the right solution for all three parts of the equation: how much public money, what kind of economic development, and how big an increase in local tax revenues.

Eugster said the difference in responses shows that “when the real important question is asked, (people) sober up and realize government shouldn’t be doing these things.”

Though Cowles said details of the project were complex, she said supporters have done “a good job of describing what the project is about, which is economic development and a strong downtown.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: 1. Improving downtown vital, but how? 2. Large stores are vital for downtown

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Camden and Alison Boggs Staff writers