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Spokane has transformed from a gritty railroad town to a hub for young professionals, health science students

Once upon a time there was a gritty little railroad town. Next to the switching yards where locomotives chuffed and cinders flew, its downtown had a nice department store where everybody shopped, and a famous hotel where everybody stayed. But in the 1960s a freeway bypassed the gritty little town, and out beyond its outskirts of bars and used-car lots some shiny suburban shopping malls appeared. We’re new, they said to the gritty little town, and you’re old. The future is here and it will pass you by.

We will change, said the leaders of the gritty little town, rolling up their sleeves.

Fifty years later, nobody calls Spokane a gritty little town by a railroad switching yard.

Its city center thrives. Vitality is sending fingers of renewal even into long-troubled neighborhoods to the east and west where prostitutes walk the streets and drug dealers run houses into ruin. Two medical schools have appeared. The railroad yard is gone, and in its place is a park. The hotel, once closed, has been restored. The department store, once the downtown’s heart, is gone.

Extending outward from the core is an expanding explosion of investment: movie theaters, shops, restaurants, concert halls, shelters and clinics for the homeless, a trendy urban grocery store, wine tasting rooms and the racket of construction as old buildings are turned into high-end apartments for the professionals, empty nesters and students who want to make this vibrant downtown center their home.

It’s more than a place to shop, and it does not go dark at 6 p.m.

How did this happen?

In more than a few American cities, the decadeslong flight to suburbia left decay in its wake. And today, changes to the retail industry have turned against the nation’s once-thriving suburban malls, hollowing them out as consumers order directly from Amazon distribution warehouses.

But Spokane has been a different story.

Todd Mielke, who grew up in Spokane, now serves as CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated. He remembers magical Christmas displays in the windows of the long-gone Crescent department store, and he remembers when once-glittering attractions like the art deco Fox Theater fell into disrepair.

There is not a single explanation for Spokane’s path from decay to recovery, he said. “I don’t know if anybody can say we planned steps 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. But every major project built upon the previous. It was a series of catalyst projects.”

Expo ’74 turned the railroad yard into Riverfront Park. When retail fled for the suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s, the River Park Square project “stopped the bleeding” and brought consumers back, Mielke said, triggering a decade of commercial reinvestment including renovation of the Davenport Hotel, the Fox Theater and Steam Plant Square. River Park Square is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

While those projects kept life in the city center’s traditional location, it was an audacious idea that caused the downtown’s footprint to grow.

Four decades ago Wendell Satre, the outgoing CEO of Washington Water Power Co., declared in his valedictory speech to the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce that Washington State University had been constructed in the wrong city.

It should have been built in Spokane, he said. It must correct this mistake, he said, by starting to relocate.

People gasped. Eyes rolled. But the idea stuck. Others took up the cause: business leaders, university presidents, legislators, governors.

At first, the response from WSU’s Pullman campus was chilly. But George Frederickson, president of Eastern Washington University, sensed an opportunity. He began moving classes to downtown Spokane, winning a warm welcome. In Pullman, eyes popped open and a turf war began between the two universities as Frederickson expanded his beachhead and WSU looked for a few programs that might be suited to a branch in Spokane.

In the state Legislature, powerful Seattle lawmakers controlled higher education’s purse strings and preferred to keep dollars focused on the University of Washington. But the Seattle advocates sensed an opportunity, as WSU pointed out branch campuses could meet the state’s growing enrollment demand from children of the baby boomer generation. Within a few years the UW was developing two branch campuses and WSU was at work on three, including Spokane’s, its first.

Still missing was a mission that made sense. Engineering, the first concept for Spokane’s campus, never got off the ground.

Lisa Brown, a key leader in the Legislature as the campus took shape and now the outgoing chancellor of WSU Spokane, remembers when the lightning struck: Health sciences would become the mission.

For years Spokane had been home to WSU’s Intercollegiate School of Nursing. Its students needed the city’s large hospitals for their training. WSU also had a College of Pharmacy; moving it to Spokane, near those same hospitals, made sense. The UW long had placed medical students in Spokane hospitals for a portion of their training. Spokane’s community colleges granted degrees to numerous varieties of medical technicians. EWU trained nurses, dental hygienists, physical therapists …

On the eastern edge of downtown Spokane, on land once populated with weeds and abandoned warehouses, WSU and EWU built the beginnings of a campus.

When the WSU nursing school relocated there and a health sciences building appeared, the new mission took off. Today, three of WSU’s 11 colleges – nursing, pharmacy and medicine – are headquartered at the Spokane University District. Across the river, Gonzaga University’s booming campus is home to a new partnership with the UW School of Medicine.

This fall, WSU’s medical school enrolls its first class of 60 medical students and the UW-Gonzaga medical school aims for 80.

Brown predicts an unconventional campus, with students living not in traditional dormitories but rather in a spreading neighborhood of privately developed apartments and eateries. A pedestrian bridge will cross railroad tracks south of the campus, connecting it to a once-sketchy neighborhood that planners hope will house spinoff businesses in the biological sciences.

The footbridge also will carry bicycles and runners from the University District’s Centennial Trail up to the South Hill’s Ben Burr Trail.

Healthy growth, planners hope, will follow.

Just as downtown housing and vitality are expected to follow the University District’s students, so also have they begun to appear on the opposite side of downtown.

Kendall Yards, once home to a graffiti-covered railroad abutment and the weedy buffer between the Spokane River and the economically troubled West Central Neighborhood, has become the site of trendy new homes, restaurants and a soon-to-open grocery store. A few blocks east along the north bank of the falls, additional housing and commercial projects have just been announced.

Mielke said Spokane’s urban core has the potential to become a magnet for those who want an urban lifestyle. Recent surveys, he said, indicate that the 18- to 34-year-olds who have settled in urban Portland and Seattle are concluding they cannot long afford the high cost of housing there, or the transportation headaches. With a multifaceted urban center and lower housing prices, Spokane could beckon, Mielke predicts.

Spokane, however, should stop thinking of itself in relation to Seattle, Mielke said.

“Back in the time of the tribes, this was a gathering place. Let’s take this historic identity of a hub. We’re the capital of the Inland Northwest. We are the big fish in this pond. We have to be really smart about our future.”

Years ago, when Mielke served in the Legislature, a powerful lawmaker from the heavily congested Puget Sound area agreed to fund state projects in Spokane because, she told him, “It’s not too late to save you guys.”

But Spokane has to anticipate what’s coming to the former site of those gritty railroad yards by the river, Mielke said. “We’re half a million people now. As we think about our future, we have to anticipate the attention, the growth, so we can maintain our quality of life.”


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