April 19, 2009 in Business

Despite economic downturn, upswing is in the works

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A ghost of bygone community hardship appeared in Spokane last month.

The 10.6 percent unemployment rate was the first in double digits since February 1987. For those who can remember the mid-1980s in Spokane, the sequel is disturbing.

Downtown then was a fright.

The Davenport Hotel had been closed for two years. River Park Square was a fading assemblage of restaurants, a theater and shops, the best of which was an Eddie Bauer surplus store. Prostitutes trolled West First Avenue.

The newly opened Wandermere Mall was less than 100,000 square feet, and Northpointe was mostly an open field. A pathetic zoo occupied what is now Mirabeau Park in Spokane Valley.

People were leaving. County population fell or flattened in five of the seven years from 1980 to 1987.

And why not? The rest of the United States was thriving, with gross domestic product growth at 2.7 percent in the second quarter of 1987, on its way to an astounding 7.2 percent in the fourth quarter.

Community morale was rock-bottom. Enter Momentum ’87, an effort by 110 business, government and education leaders to brainstorm an economic development strategy – and, more importantly, implement it.

“People were leaving Spokane to find jobs elsewhere. And there were jobs elsewhere,” recalls Paul Redmond, then Avista Corp.’s chairman and one of Momentum’s four co-chairmen. “The community needed to come together and decide what needed to be done.”

Dave Clack, another co-chairman, says it had become obvious that timber and mining – with agriculture, the area’s resource mainstays – were declining and unlikely ever to come back. As they have not.

Momentum’s three days of closeted deliberations produced eight development strategies, backed by more than $3 million in corporate contributions. Clack characterizes what happened in the next few years as a good old-fashioned barn-raising.

In the case of the “Boone Street Barn,” it was a razing. The decrepit facility was replaced by the Veterans Memorial Arena.

The Convention Center was expanded, so successfully another hall became necessary by 2007.

Construction of Sirti, one of the priorities, set the stage for development of the Riverpoint campus. The former wasteland has become the Spokane center for Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, even an offshoot of the University of Washington’s schools of medicine and dentistry.

Redmond says he knew Momentum had succeeded, and overcome community skepticism, when in October 1988 Boeing Co. announced it would build a plant on the West Plains.

The time for the group’s every idea may not have arrived; there was support for a state income tax and Disneyland-like amusements in Riverfront Park. But its policy, advocacy and infrastructure recommendations continue to shape Spokane.

Meanwhile, Kootenai County launched its own economic primer, Jobs Plus.

Yet, in March 2009, Spokane County unemployment hit 10.6 percent. Does that relapse indicate Spokane has slipped into a 1980s funk? Do we need a Momentum II?

There’s no denying that for 26,000 job seekers these are hard times. Retail sales are down. Bankruptcies are up.

But, fortunately and unfortunately, Spokane is not facing its challenges alone, as it did two decades ago. The national unemployment rate may be slightly lower, but seasonal employment in the area that will close the gap has not kicked in. There is no sense today the area’s future – its youth and talent – is outbound.

And Momentum’s legacies, infrastructure and organizational, remain substantial and vital.

Rich Hadley, president of Greater Spokane Incorporated, says the inertia of the 1980s was due in part to the failure of the community’s leaders to sustain the effort that brought a world’s fair to Spokane in 1974. GSI, the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, Jobs Plus and other organizations have not repeated that mistake, he said.

Spokane is more confident and assertive, he says. More than $1 billion in new construction on roads, schools and other development are pending, with more, likely, as federal economic stimulus money is deployed. Employment just shy of 220,000 last month may be a disappointing 6,000 less than a year ago, but it’s 20,000 better than 2000 and 40,000 better than 1990.

“It isn’t like the rest of the country is going to recover and we’re not going to,” Hadley says. “There’s reason to believe we’re on the upswing.”

The up may be somewhat indiscernible today. But the ghost of 1987?

Banished.

Contact Bert Caldwell at (509) 459-5450 or bertc@spokesman.com.


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