Spokane must define its own dreams, preserve what’s best about living here and fix what’s broken to avoid becoming a second-class city on the decline.
That means developing an educated work force, creating high-wage jobs, and investing in solid infrastructure and cultural amenities that build community pride and quality of life, experts say.
“Focus on what’s positive and good about the East Side,” said Tom Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. “Focus on protecting that, instead of a just-say-no vision of who you are…
“People have to have a positive sense of community and place. They have to value themselves and know why they are living there instead of feeling, ‘I’m just trapped here because this is where aluminum and wood products jobs used to be.”’
Bernard Daines moved back to the Spokane Valley from the Silicon Valley in December 1995. He’s raised $25 million largely from outside investors and is pursuing his dream of developing technology for high-speed computer networks.
He could have stayed in California, and in some ways it would have been easier. That’s where the critical mass of skilled labor, high-tech suppliers and other support is centered.
But Daines is a graduate of Central Valley High School and he wanted to come home. His company, Packet Engines Inc., is a huge success so far. It’s grown from five employees to more than 100.
For more entrepreneurs like him to locate and invest in Spokane, the city needs to overhaul its business culture, Daines said. There is too much aversion to risk in the Inland Northwest.
The need for a more flexible, risk-taking spirit extends to employees who would work for start-up companies, landlords who build and rent the office space they need, suppliers and lenders.
“Attitude is key. It’s everything,” Daines said. “The attitude of ‘I’m going to have to have guaranteed return or I’m not going to do this’ won’t work.”
Some people are trying to move the community forward by investing their talent in developing the arts and education.
Andrew Baucom started a business downtown called Art By Yourself, where customers paint their own pottery and custom tiles.
He stays in Spokane to be near his parents, and enjoy life with his family in an affordable house in a beautiful neighborhood. He can rent a studio for a third the price his artist friends pay in Seattle. He figures he’s got it great.
“People here in leadership kind of have an inferiority complex. For some reason they compare themselves to Seattle. What a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Find your own uniqueness. Your own dream. That’s what we need to do. I like the fact that one person can still make a difference here.”
Lorinda Knight was reading the newspaper a few years ago and saw one line in a story about the need for a gallery downtown that showcases contemporary art by local and regional artists.
“So I decided I’d open one,” she said. She started the Lorinda Knight Gallery last year on West Sprague next to the Ridpath Hotel.
“I love my location downtown. All kinds of people come in and they are delighted to see the gallery and the artists’ work. All ages and income levels. I’d like to hold on to the friendliness and the openness of the people here.”
Her recent trip to Seattle offered the usual combination of great coffee and a diversity of restaurants and culture, along with horrible traffic and other big-city blues.
“When I went over to Seattle I ran into some rudeness,” she said. “I think people here are more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.”
Bob Scarfo moved to Spokane from the Washington, D.C., area. He’s an associate professor of landscape architecture at Washington State University Spokane.
He was attracted to the challenge of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching at WSU in Spokane, which he saw as a refreshing change from academic turf wars.
Scarfo marvels that people strike up conversations with him on the sidewalk, while he’s walking his dog or just riding the elevator.
“I was standing in line at the grocery store and someone was writing a check for a latte. Try that in D.C. People get gunned down for less.”
Teresa Brum, the city’s director of historic preservation, also feels lucky to be in Spokane.
“Here it’s a slower pace and I’m able to live on the South Hill in a great Craftsman house. My 12-year-old can walk to school and I feel very comfortable with that. We live in a true community.”
She hopes Spokane will make the most of its historic and visually interesting downtown, where she is working with others to create an arts and entertainment district. “I like to say Spokane is so far behind, we are ahead. We didn’t tear things down.”
West Side wealth and talent can help. The largest grant so far for the proposed Children’s Museum of Spokane came from the William H. Gates III Foundation in Seattle.
“We feel very supported by people on the West Side,” said Mary Brandt, executive director of the museum, expected to open in the West First neighborhood in the spring of 1998.
Quality of life is the competitive edge in the new economy of the West, said Daniel Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.
In the information age, more people can work anywhere they want. That means towns can draw high-wage earners and employers if they are desirable places to live.
“Communities that refuse to plan to control growth or allow downtown to deteriorate and lose its character are going to lose competitive advantage to towns that take care of themselves,” said Kemmis, a former mayor of Missoula.
Small successes can help build the civic cohesion and muscle needed to identify and protect community assets. In Missoula, it took tapping local people to build a hand-crafted carousel.
“The self image of a city is really important,” Kemmis said. “A community can defeat itself by believing it has the lack of capacity to do well and take care of its problems. And a community can pull itself up by its bootstraps by building a sense of capacity and being able to do what it needs to do.”
Above all, residents need to pull together in regions where the economy knows no boundaries.
Spokane’s downtown economy is tied to the Valley’s, which is tied to Post Falls and to Coeur d’Alene. “They are all part of the same region,” Kemmis said. “The rivalry between the Spokane Valley and Spokane is self-defeating. That’s globally short-sighted.”
Bob Watt, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said it’s no secret Spokane has been suffering a kind of civic flu.
“When people feel that way, they are less likely to invest in themselves and have confidence in the future. It’s like when people are clinically depressed. They are less likely to get exercise and take care of themselves and they get into a negative cycle.”
Bob Herold, executive vice provost of Eastern Washington University, said too many people in Spokane shirk the civic duty of taking an interest in their town and its future.
“It’s what I refer to as the Lake Culture as Opiate of the Masses. Here’s how it works. Spokane has a lot of lakes. If you stop anyone on the street and ask them what they are going to do this weekend they say, ‘I’m going to the lake.’
“People here can escape. All kinds of people, whether it’s to Hayden Lake or some pothole in the Palouse. There are a lot of people who, if they knew they were miserable, could fix a few things. But they are going to the lake.”
Efforts to improve the region’s economy and the quality of life are in the works.
The Downtown Spokane Partnership is working with citizens and the city to draft a new plan for the growth and development of downtown. The nonprofit group envisions a revitalized retail core, quality housing, high-wage employment, inviting restaurants and a broad range of cultural attractions.
Also under way is the New Century Plan, a community agenda developed by hundreds of volunteers in 1996 with help from the Spokane Area and Valley chambers of commerce.
People from around the region came together to do the hard work of identifying Spokane’s most important needs. Those were spelled out in a set of benchmarks for progress in economic development, quality of life, civic leadership, education and more.
Part of the agenda includes Focus 21, a five-year effort to create, among other things, 1,500 jobs that pay $45,000 a year and 7,000 jobs that pay at least $28,000 a year.
It’s important not to expect too much from these efforts too soon, observers say.
“Patience is a large part of this,” said Ed Whitelaw, an economist at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “Most of these things don’t pay off for eight or 10 years. These are long-run economic transitions that Spokane and other communities are undergoing.”
William Riebsame, professor of geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, saw enough in common among Inland West towns in transition to write a book with maps to chart the geography of the New West.
The maps include places to buy the New York Times, log onto the Internet with a high-speed modem, and get a good cappuccino.
The question is not whether Spokane will be part of this economic transition, but how more people can benefit from it as the economy increasingly favors the educational haves over the have-nots.
Some people in Spokane see progress already.
Chris Schnug, a partner at the accounting firm of McFarland & Alton and president of Focus 21, said bringing people together already is creating opportunity where there was frustration.
As part of the goal of generating more high-paying jobs, a community college staff member linked up with machinists to determine how job training could prepare more students for work at better pay.
The result? From 100 to 300 people may soon be on a new, streamlined course of training to land them in machinist jobs in Spokane that pay $15 an hour to start. That’s $31,200 a year, well above the county’s average annual wage.
Some outside observers also see promise in Spokane. They marvel at business leaders who work to hike wages rather than celebrate bargain-basement labor costs.
“I think it’s great that you have a chamber of commerce that recognizes the short-sightedness of low-wage jobs. They aren’t going to float Spokane’s boat for long,” said Don Snow of the Northern Lights Institute in Missoula, a nonprofit think tank.
“The great news is you have people who aren’t interested in the past and the present, they want the future.”
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