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Summit offers ideas for the future

A meeting yesterday of community officials and citizens interested in economic development produced a roster of ideas and goals as long as a Christmas list for Santa.

Organizers said Wednesday’s economic summit, held at the Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane, was a success in drawing about 300 people. It also set the stage for the next session, to be held sometime in February.

A group of organizers will now sift through the ideas generated Wednesday and come up with a summary to present at the second session, which will also be open to the community, said Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin.

McCaslin said that second meeting in February should lead to the creation of an “umbrella group” or some system to track the key initiatives of the area’s economic development groups and universities.

The goal, she noted, is stronger and smarter collaboration so that the region sees the creation of more high-paying jobs.

The economic development summit was convened by McCaslin and fellow Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris. The county paid between $20,000 and $25,000 to host the event, McCaslin said. Wednesday’s meeting, which drew participants from Eastern Washington and North Idaho, was open to the public and included elected officials, company executives, economic development professionals and citizens.

Responses afterward ranged from strong praise to reservations about how effective such a large gathering can be.

During the session’s open-mike period for community suggestions, more than 40 people took turns identifying “vision statements” for how the region’s economy can become more prosperous and self-sustaining.

Mindy Stewart, who owns a Spokane day-care consulting firm, KidCentric Inc., urged leaders to give more attention to quality day care and early childhood education.

“You need to realize that if our kids are behind by the time they enter kindergarten, they stay behind,” Stewart said.

Other ideas suggested included strengthening the area’s health care industry, protecting the environment and encouraging outdoor recreation as an attraction, expanding growth at the Spokane International Airport, improving public transit, and boosting technology education for students in kindergarten through 12th grades.

The summit’s backdrop, said McCaslin, is the need to make sure Spokane’s efforts are more strategic and collaborative to get the best return for money spent. Spokane County alone spends close to $400,000 per year on economic development.

Spokane’s median household income is only 80 percent of the national average, according to Randy Barcus, chief economist at Avista Corp. Barcus and state Regional Labor Economist Jeff Zahir made a 30-minute presentation at the summit, outlining the community’s wage and employment picture.

The strongest note of dissent Wednesday came from Jim Simmons, head of local investment firm ICM Asset Management.

“You can talk all you want about the different goals you hear now. But the irrefutable problem in this community is that we need more capital than we now have,” Simmons said.

Without more money here to invest in young companies, Spokane will struggle along and continue tinkering with economic development policies, he said.

In an interview later, Simmons said he believed the event was diluted by being a public session. “It should have included about 30 people,” he said, limited to key businesspeople, economic development officials and those with access to capital resources.

McCaslin, in response, disagreed with Simmons’ smaller-group idea. She pointed to places like San Diego and the Tri-Cities that have adopted large-group collaborations and seen economic development momentum as a result.

“You have to have collaboration (among a wide number of community groups) or you get splintering,” she said.

The umbrella group that could oversee the strategies resulting from the summit could be Spokane County or some version of what’s done in the Tri-Cities, McCaslin said. There, the Three Rivers Community Roundtable uses a collaborative structure and assigns responsibility for projects to several Tri-Cities groups.

The roundtable has no hierarchy, no paid staff and operates by consensus.

Because she’s stepping down this month as a county commissioner, McCaslin said she likely won’t play a key role in the Spokane umbrella group. She hopes some other elected official chooses to push the effort.

“The best results for efforts like this, long term, are those that have someone involved who comes to it with a real passion,” she said.