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University District to get welcome pick-me-up

The most striking visual transformation in downtown Spokane since Expo ’74 gave us Riverfront Park has been the higher education development blossoming along the Spokane River east of Division Street.

Weeds, transient encampments, neglected railroad tracks and other blight have given way to a verdant college setting, enhanced by hundreds of millions of dollars in academic structures and enlivened by faculty and student foot traffic.

Continued progress received a boost last week when the City Council approved a Spokane University District Revitalization Area. The new entity is one of seven demonstration sites approved by the Legislature this year when it created a new variation of tax increment financing.

Like other TIF methods, the 2009 law enables a municipality like Spokane to foster private and public development within a defined area and pay for the financing using tax revenues generated by increased property value and economic activity that flow from the development.

Under the provisions of the legislation, the state will give back $250,000 a year in sales taxes it would have collected from this community to pay for debt service on bonds issued to finance construction projects. Among other objectives, city officials hope to dress up the Division Street corridor along the western boundary of the new district, to include a private project that will convert the vacant Burgans Furniture store to a hotel and events facility. Other plans include a pedestrian bridge that will connect the University District to West Sprague Avenue, where potential exists for affordable student living.

The campus has amassed a cooperative presence of three public and two private higher education institutions with 12,000 students, a figure expected to reach 16,000 in a few years. Situated near Spokane’s major medical facilities, the University District is key in Spokane’s role as a regional health care center as well as an education and research core, especially if the community’s designs on a four-year medical school pan out.

The road to that destination is not without bumps. Advocates of the vision may face an obstacle in a City Charter provision that requires debt-funded capital expenditures to be put through the time and expense of a public vote. It’s unclear how the charter language pertains to this concept, but a city attorney conceded Monday evening it needs to be worked out.

If so, working it out should be a priority so the possibilities attached to this new economic development tool can be pursued with confidence and clarity.

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