I made what some people might consider a civic investment in the region over the holidays.
I bought a crimson and gray Rose Bowl cap in Pasadena.
It has the Washington State University logo on the front.
In the first week of the new year I’ve already worn the cap in public a number of times.
It’s my way of saying I’m proud of the area.
I’ve invested $20 in the hat. I wear it in public.
Therefore, it’s a civic investment, right?
Well, not exactly.
While the cap makes me feel proud, and while it modestly helped out the WSU athletic budget, I don’t think my civic investment is quite what Kristi Blake, the chair of Spokane’s new Civic Investment Initiative, has in mind.
“The question Spokane really needs to ask is, what is true civic investment?” Blake said a few days ago as she outlined plans to bring civic investment planning into everyday operations in businesses around the region.
Blake, a member of the 150-person New Century Task Force that is working to define an economic development plan for the Inland Northwest for the next decade, has been given the task of getting businesses more directly involved in community life.
“Because I think you can make a good business case that investing time and effort in the community is good for business,” Blake explained.
It likely won’t be an easy sell.
Many businesses, hard pressed by competition and striving for efficient operations, likely will argue that simply staying in business is a civic investment.
After all, businesses keep people employed.
Businesses generate taxes.
Businesses add breadth and definition to community. Many businessmen and women might ask, “Isn’t that enough?”
More and more economic development experts say no.
In 1995, a consulting group hired to scope out Spokane’s economic future noted that poverty, underemployment and the lack of skilled workers likely would slow the economic development of Spokane in the decade ahead.
This poverty cycle most often impacts children and young people.
And, when kids and young adults are in crisis, there is less business for everyone except the cops, the courts and the counselors.
A few years earlier in Spokane, Neal Peirce, the noted urban consultant, was confounded by the tremendously high distrust of local government in Spokane despite any clear indications that local government was particularly ineffective or corrupt.
Peirce noted that this distrust of government made it all the more important for Spokane to devote more time, energy and money to non-governmental programs and groups. Very simply, Peirce said, if you don’t want government getting involved in civic projects, the private sector must.
From these perspectives, more civic investment by businesses seems necessary for two reasons. First, it helps counter the human costs of poverty and youth problems. Second, it can make up for the inability of government to do it all in a community.
In Spokane, however, a survey by Blake’s Civic Investment Initiative committee has found that no clear definition nor no common blueprint exists for how local businesses might embrace civic investments.
A survey of 300 businesses found many that endorse the idea of investing in the community.
Most let their employees off for PTA meetings, business meetings, and trade shows.
But golf tournaments were also identified as civic contributions and ranked ahead of United Way as an identified reason why a Spokane business would let an employee off work.
And, while charity golf tournaments are booming, the number of United Way loaned executives used to fund-raise for social projects has dropped from 55 in 1984 in Spokane, to only 6 in 1997. This is a disturbing trend - golf winning out over United Way.
The drop in business participation in United Way fund raising also could be explained by the fact that Spokane continues to lose corporate offices and continues to gain in branch offices.
That, and the fact that people work harder these days. It’s a competitive world out there and doing good for the community doesn’t immediately put money in the bank or pressure on the competition.
So, Blake’s committee has work ahead.
The committee will be trying to draft what it calls some best practices for companies that want to get more involved in civic life.
This means giving some guidance to businesses on how to craft a policy for letting employees get involved in community activities.
And, it means suggesting some guidelines to businesses for how they and their branch offices can plot out strategies for donating money to worthy community causes.
“We want to make the business case that becoming more actively involved in civic life is good business,” Blake said.
Spokane can only benefit if her message gets through.
, DataTimes MEMO: Chris Peck is the editor of The Spokesman-Review. His column appears each Sunday on Perspective.