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Poll finds Spokane happy to grow

Tue., Oct. 23, 2007, midnight

Growth is good. Just ask Spokane County residents, who are evidently very happy about the economic development of recent years.

And, according to a survey done last month, they want more. Improving the local economy and providing more jobs was by far the highest priority, ranking first or second in 31 percent of the responses from 229 registered voters sampled by Public Opinion Strategies.

The Virginia firm took a core sample of 400 state residents, plus over-samples from Spokane, Whatcom, Clark, Thurston and Kitsap counties. The Washington Association of Realtors paid for the study.

A majority in every sample said the state and their community are headed in the right direction, with Spokane highest among the counties at 61 percent. For the state, it was 63 Residents were given a list of priorities that, besides economic development, included improving transportation, protecting the environment, holding the line on taxes, and managing growth.

In comparison with the embrace of growth in Spokane County, only 17 percent of those surveyed in Washington ranked economic growth a top priority. None of the other counties gave it more than 25 percent support. Growth has about exhausted residents of fast-growing Kitsap County; only 13 percent say more is important to them.

Not surprisingly, managing growth was a priority for only 11 percent of Spokane County respondents, versus as high as 26 percent in Thurston County, and 23 percent in Whatcom County.

Avista Corp. economist Randy Barcus says the answers suggest a sense that growth has worked in the county – an assessment with which he agrees – and that a rising hammer lifts all hopes.

The additional 10,000-plus put on payrolls around the county the last year or so has considerably enlarged the constituency for development, he says. “They remember when they did not have a job.”

But Spokane’s other major departure from the state and county samplings is disturbing, if misplaced. Fully 27 percent say “Making your area safe from crime” is a priority, 5 percent higher than the state sample. It was no higher than 16 percent in any of the four other counties. But statistics show Spokane County’s property and violent crime rates have dropped significantly and, for property crimes, is below the state average.

In a survey that has the usual share of oddities, here are two more anomalies to consider:

• The county commission district most pro-growth is No. 3, which encompasses the West Plains from the Spokane River to the Whitman County line, yet the commissioner from that district, Bonnie Mager, might be considered the most reticent about growth.

• Spokane was the most Republican and the least liberal compared with the state or other counties, yet one of the bedrock values of conservatism, protecting private property rights, received downright dismal support. Only 3 percent of respondents made it their top priority, 9 percent among their top two priorities. That was lower than the state sample, and for any of the other counties.

On the other hand, high housing costs have raised red flags all across Washington, with about two-thirds of respondents saying they are concerned. Almost 40 percent say the solution is more funding for low-income housing, almost twice the share who say more funding for infrastructure would do the trick.

A plurality – 29 percent – say growth should be concentrated in urban areas, with planned-unit developments adjacent to existing suburbs the second choice. About one-half are OK with new homes if open spaces and parks are preserved, as well as the character of their neighborhoods.

To the Realtors, the results reinforce their call for more flexible land-use rules that would allow more types of housing.

“Our challenge is to get policymakers to make the connections and plan to accommodate that growth to preserve our quality of life,” says Chief Executive Officer Steve Francks.Spokane County residents are apparently fine with that direction. The question is how far they will go.

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