May 1, 2005 in Opinion

RPS conflict gives damage, lessons

The Spokesman-Review
 

If a settlement worked out last week in the River Park Square case means the troubling saga will soon be over, no one will greet the news with more relief than the men and women who produce The Spokesman-Review each day.

When the daily newspaper of a community is owned by the same company that is in the middle of a loud public squabble, it makes for awkward journalism. Admittedly, The Spokesman- Review fell short in some respects: some ethical lapses in news reporting, too much boosterish hyperbole on these opinion pages. How far the newspaper has come in reclaiming its credibility is a judgment that must be made in the minds of readers.

In the meantime, a discomfiting environment does not absolve a newspaper of the duty to care about its community, report on its doings and comment on its interests.

And, indeed, the conflict has left Spokane’s interests scarred. A $4.2 million agreement between the city of Spokane and its former bond attorney follows a series of out-of-court deals that dispense with the main financial claims arising out of the complex financing arrangements for the downtown parking garage and mall.

A handful of lesser matters remain to be tied up, but the core questions seem to have been resolved, at least as far as the law is concerned.

The psychological healing may take considerably longer. Let us hope it is accompanied by learning, so the mistakes made during this experience will not be repeated.

Plans for redevelopment of the downtown mall into the modern fixture that graces Main and Post today were laid at a time when civic influence resided in a network of close-knit alliances. The people who got things done, and had for generations, knew and trusted each other. They cooperated, and they had numerous successes to show for it. That’s how Expo ‘74 happened. That’s how Spokane International Airport got built.

At a roundtable discussion about Spokesman-Review credibility four years ago, developer and RPS critic John Stone contended that civic projects in Spokane tended to be judged less on merit than on pedigree. If the right people were behind an idea, it got backing; if not, it didn’t.

Stone’s remark, right or wrong, resonated with some citizens who felt optimistic forecasts about the mall project should have been challenged more aggressively. They weren’t, though, and parking meter revenues that weren’t expected to be seriously exposed ultimately became encumbered. Community block grant development funds were put at risk.

Those consequences were sad enough, but the personal and emotional fissures may have been worse.

On one side, distasteful lawsuits were filed against public officials who aired their vigorous opposition to the development. On the other, vitriolic accusations were leveled, reflecting unwillingness to accept honest miscalculation as anything less than sinister conniving.

Today we know projects of this magnitude need to be more open and more streamlined, and there are encouraging signs that the community is eager to bridge the angry gulf and pursue other opportunities. Some toxins nevertheless remain to be flushed from the civic bloodstream.

But if Spokane could rebuild from the fire that leveled it in 1889, it can revitalize itself after being scorched by the past several years’ civic flames. A few stubborn embers still smolder, but the court settlement provides a welcome splash of retardant.


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