Dozens of business people from throughout Spokane County packed up last week and headed for Olympia where they could buttonhole area lawmakers and talk about legislation that will impact their businesses and their lives back home.
For some of them, home means Spokane. For others, it is Spokane Valley. And for others, it may be Medical Lake or Cheney or elsewhere in the West Plains. The significance is that while the Spokane Regional, Spokane Valley and West Plains chambers of commerce may have separate constituencies and separate and even competing interests the rest of the year, they have enough concerns in common that it’s worthwhile to cooperate on an annual trip to the seat of state government.
In North Idaho, meanwhile, the municipal leaders of Coeur d’Alene and other Panhandle cities such as Post Falls and Hayden have embraced the same concept. They get together regularly to compare notes about the challenges they face as local governments and geographical neighbors. It allows them to look out for their citizens’ shared interests.
Such a strategy is easier to envision than to implement – turf rivalries being the natural enemy of collaboration.
Even so, the Inland Northwest would be better off if more entities harnessed their resources and energy in regional partnerships. The most daunting issues that confront us have no regard for political boundaries. We share an airshed and all the contaminants it carries on the wind. Most of us drink from the same underground water supply, as long as it lasts. So many of us commute back and forth for work, shopping and recreation that Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are bound to find themselves in a single joint statistical area after the 2010 Census figures are collected. And, perhaps the most demanding test of regionalism, management of the Spokane River, will be accomplished satisfactorily only if all the local entities work in tandem to capture opportunities and negotiate compromises.
In the late 1980s, representatives of local governments ignored the Idaho-Washington state line and formed an informal relationship that incorporated periodic meetings. Former Spokane City Manager Terry Novak recalls that the quarterly get-togethers were largely social, but they allowed individual officials to form acquaintances and relationships that made it possible to discuss weightier matters from a position of trust. The structure lasted several years, he recalls.
Jack Hebner, a Spokane city councilman at the time, thinks the approach ultimately collapsed under the weight of a naysaying mentality that swept through Spokane and several other local governments. Collaboration suffocated in that environment.
Times have changed, however. New faces are in place, even new cities and new city structures. But the stakes we face as a region remain great, too great to be overshadowed by parochial considerations. It is time for the local governments of the Inland Northwest – cities, counties and tribes of Eastern Washington and North Idaho — to form a single association and become effective advocates for the binding interests of the region as a whole.
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