Spokane City Council members are mulling an end to their long-standing agreement with Greater Spokane Incorporated to provide economic development services.
The council decided this week to delay voting on a six-month contract extension with the organization until it has had a chance to meet with its chief executive officer, Todd Mielke, and discuss the services the city wants GSI to provide. Spokane’s contract with Greater Spokane Incorporated expires Thursday.
“We want to make sure what they’re doing for economic development jibes with the city strategy,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said.
Following approval of the contract extension, Stuckart said, the council will take the unprecedented step of creating a bidding process to provide economic development services for the city. City Council members will meet with members of Mayor David Condon’s administration this summer to determine the components of that bidding process, Stuckart said.
Brian Coddington, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the talks would be part of a larger discussion about how to continue to build momentum in the economic sector. Coddington pointed to the city’s recent designation by the Association of Washington Cities for its targeted investment program, which has brought improvements to downtown, Hillyard, the Perry District and along Broadway Avenue in West Central.
“There’s a comprehensive look underway at the city’s economic development strategy,” Coddington said. “We’re looking at how best to leverage the work that GSI does.”
The city of Spokane pays $92,440 annually to GSI, a little more than half of which goes toward business recruitment. Spokane County signed a contract earlier this year worth about three times that, with $225,000 for recruitment and lobbying. An additional $75,000 was set aside for GSI to recruit international companies. Spokane Valley pays the organization $43,000 per year.
Mielke, who became CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated in February, said he has been unable to meet individually with council members because he’s been busy recruiting for empty positions at the organization. GSI was formed in 2007 when the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and Spokane Area Economic Development Council were combined under one roof.
“I’m hopeful that the city and GSI will find common ground,” Mielke said this week.
City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said she wants to meet with Mielke to press him on details about what the organization can provide the city.
“I would want to hear specifically how the city of Spokane would benefit,” Kinnear said. “And I mean specifically. Not in generalities, not in platitudes, but specifically.”
Stuckart acknowledged his personal disagreement with GSI over its officials’ opposition to a $400 million casino and retail development near Fairchild Air Force Base proposed by the Spokane Tribe of Indians. Mielke, in a news conference held at the same time as Gov. Jay Inslee announced his approval of the project, asked the governor and the tribe to reconsider the casino’s location, citing concerns about its effect on the base’s mission.
“GSI has not changed its viewpoint,” Mielke said. “We’re supposed to be the voice of the business community.”
Stuckart, who publicly campaigned for the casino development and criticized GSI at Inslee’s news conference, called GSI’s position evidence of a “conflicting interest.”
“I think there’s a conflict when as a chamber they’re opposing economic development projects,” Stuckart said. “I’m not expressing an opinion other than my own.”
City Councilwoman Karen Stratton called GSI’s statement on the casino proposal a “final frustrating point,” noting that the City Council changed its position on support for the project and GSI could have done the same. She said she’d scheduled a meeting with Mielke next week and hoped they could collaborate on the city’s economic future.
“We need to find better ways to work together,” she said.
City Councilman Mike Fagan said GSI plays “an integral role” in business development for the region, but also said it would be beneficial for the council to meet with Mielke individually to talk about specifics. Fagan cited the potential for investments in the East Hillyard neighborhood as a priority he’d like to address with GSI.
“I think it’s a good idea to learn a little bit more about Mielke’s new position, including his vision for the future of GSI,” Fagan said.
Fagan said he believed the city’s needs were currently being met by the organization, and any potential replacement would need to be able to compete with what he called the organization’s expertise in federal lobbying. He said differences of opinion on “social justice and equity issues” – including paid sick leave and not requiring job applicants to list their criminal histories on applications – could be driving some of the City Council’s desire to shop around for development services.
“Aside from the political environment that we currently deal in now, there have been some high-profile issues that the council has faced off with GSI on,” Fagan said.
Stuckart said those disagreements are not fueling the delay in the contract extension.
“We differ on many policy decisions,” Stuckart said. “In their role as a chamber, they can oppose those.”
Stuckart said he was uncertain if the bidding process would attract any organization other than GSI. The nonprofit is the only state-recognized development organization in the county.
“I’m sure they will apply,” he said.
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